Reviewing Early Christian Doctrines – 3rd Century Trinitarianism (pt1)

*Please start here, read this, and then help with the discussion. This issue is a cornerstone issue and deserves a great deal of time.

As the Church moved into the Third Century, it was immediately besieged by heresies of various strips. Having dealt with the Gnosticism and other heresies (although even now, these ancient error filled doctrines erupt), which focused on the unity of God, the philosophers in the ranks begin to explore doctrine while pushing the Body of Christ into news areas and new thoughts. In the closing years of the previous century, we had seen the notion of an economic Deity settle into a language that focused on the οικονομία (economy) which is a biblical word; however, the thoughts of the philosophers moved beyond biblical words, concepts, and thoughts.

Dr. Kelly (pg 109) says that the success of the explanation of the Economy caused a ‘powerful reaction’ in circles that shied away from the Logos doctrine, citing that it ‘imperiled the divine unity.’ This led to two courses of thought that are often confused in the minds of Trinitarians. In discussing this, it is wise to understand that the modern ‘Church world’ sees both of these in the same light, as heretical factions; however, oneness believers see the latter as the true and authentic faith of the Church. In light of a Trinitarian’s – ancient and modern – what is known as monarchism close to ‘oneness’ doctrine but yet fails in several points, some which will be discussed at a later point.

Tertullian, the dread of every ‘oneness’ believer, was a theologian from the north African city of Carthage who along with the Roman Hippolytus begin to issue statements which would later mature at Nicaea. Dr. Kelly makes the point that these two figures of the past has no standing as official spokesmen for the Church. In ‘defending’ the Christian faith, both became schismatics – Tertullian with his Montanism, and Hippolytus with his schism against the Roman Bishop. The theology of these two no less great thinkers begin to involve, even more so than Clement and Origen, a brand of philosophy that seemed to ground itself in Christianity, but bore marks of outside influences. Tertullian wrote ‘before all things God was alone, being His own universe, location, everything. He was alone, however, in the sense that there was nothing external to Himself. But even then He was not really along, for He had with Him that Reason which He possessed within Himself, that is to say, His own Reason.’ (pg 111, citing Avd. Prax 5). Further, Tertullian constitutes the word as ‘a second in addition to Himself’ (secundum a se). This language is more philosophical than biblical, more Alexandrine than Antioch.

According to Hippolytus, alongside ‘the Father, there was another, a second Person, while the Spirit completed the Triad. (pg112 citing C. Noetus 7.11,14). According to Dr. Kelly, this fails squarely against the economic Deity as held by the Apologists, especially Irenaeus. As Dr. Kelly said (pg107-8), ‘Its second-century traits stand out clearly, particularly is representation of the Triad by the imagery, not of three coequal person…but rather of a single personage, the Father Who is the Godhead Itself, with His mind, or rationality, and His wisdom.’ In the matter of half a century, Christian had gone from recognizing one Person to recognizing three persons. His language, like Justin, has a ‘subordinationist ring’.

Hippolytus was ‘reluctant to designate the Word as the Son’ until the Incarnation while Tertullian ‘followed the Apologists in dating His ‘perfect generation, ‘’ meaning that the Word was generated before Creation. Before that, Tertullian has to admit that God ‘could not strictly be said to have a Son’. It is noteworthy that Dr. Kelly states that during the time of Tertullian and Hippolytus, the ‘Father’ began to take on more of a parental definition in relation to the ‘Son’. Later in the Third Century, Novatian refuses to tie the ‘generation of the Son to creation’ (pg 125) because it was illogical for God to be a Father and not have had a Son. This begins to show that the idea of God changed considerably – from first principle to parent; with that change, God changed from the economic Deity of the Apologists to a for now a firm bi-personal deity of the early Third Century.

Tertullian, our favorite dread, is a large focus on early Third Century thought and is often credited with the first use of the word Trinity (trinitas). He believes that the three – Father, Son, Spirit – are numerically distinct, ‘capable of being counted’. He states, ‘We believe in one only God, yet subject to this dispensation, which is our word for the economy, that the one only God has also a Son, His Word, Who has issued out of Himself…which Son then sent, according to His promise, the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, out of the Father’. Clearly ignoring Paul’s written command of refraining from going beyond what is written, Tertullian adds a pre-Nicene creed to the belief of the Apostles and the Apologists of the One God.

Although Tertullian believes that Stoicism had no place in Christianity, Dr. Kelly (pg 114) points out that his background of ideas was in fact Stoic, as he ‘regarded the divine spirit as a highly rarefied species of matter’. It is because of this that Tertullian can say ‘the Father is the whole substance, while the Son is a derivation from and the portion of the whole’ while not believing that the ‘potion’ (portio) is not a literal severance. According to Dr. Kelly, Tertullian ‘dismisses the idea that the Person can be three in ‘status, substance of power; as regards these the Godhead is indivisibly one, and the threeness applies only to the ‘grade’, or ‘aspect’, or ‘manifestation’ in which the Persons or presented.

Citing an advance on Irenaeus, Dr. Kelly says that both Hippolytus and Tertullian leaped over the Apologists in:

  • Their attempts to make explicit the oneness of the divine power or substance of which the Three were expressions or forms
  • Their recognition of ‘Them’ as Person.

Yet, in their expression of the Godhead switching from ‘it’ or ‘him’ to ‘them’, Dr. Kelly says that for these two thinkers, the Godhead is indivisible and ‘are one identical being.’ It is during this time that the Latin ‘persona,’ or ‘mask,’ becomes a word for theological use.

Dynamic Monarchianism is not worthy spending much time on it, since ‘oneness’ believers and Trinitarians both see it as a heresy, but is worth nothing that Dr. Kelly sees the classification of this heresy as Monarchianism as an interpretation of ‘adoptionism and Modalism as misguided attempts to salvage the Bible dogma that God is one.’ Although this heresy persisted for sometime and erupted on the modern scene in some small way as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it serves very little in a discussion of the Trinity and Oneness doctrine.

What is usually called ‘oneness,’ Modalism,’ or ‘Modalistic Monarchianism, is held by a large number of people who profess Christianity. It is what is usually thought of when people say ‘Pentecostal.’ Seeing a supposed revival in the early part of the 20th century, ‘oneness’ doctrine is pointed at by many Trinitarians as an ancient heresy on the level of adoptionism and Gnosticism; ‘Oneness’ believers see themselves as the continuation of the ‘New Testament Church’, of the ‘Apostles’ Doctrine’, or simple in the line of Peter and Paul.

Dr. Kelly (pg119) says that Modalism was formulated in response to the increasing amount of importance that the Logos Doctrine began to have. Further, he states that it was to counter the efforts of ‘theologians to represent the Godhead as having revealed Itself in the economy as tri-personal’. It must be noted, that a oneness believer would have no problem in subscribing to the Economy as described by Dr. Kelly in pointing to the Apologists, but oneness does have a problem in the Deity as being represented as ‘tri-personal’. Dr. Kelly readily reminds us again that the term ‘Father’ did not carry the same wait for the Apologists, and hence the Apostles, as it did for Tertullian and Hippolytus, and it was this added weight that Modalists fought against.

Modalists argue(d) that the Word that emanated from the Father was verbally distinct, verses numerically, being a projection of the Father. Of the promoters of this language, we know very little. Nothing of their actual work survives; only their words and the interpretations of those words survive in the mouth of their opponents. Of Noetus, Sabellius, and Praxeas, we have a history spoiled by the victors of vigorous theological debates. We have Patripassianism, or the belief that the Father suffered, only the mouth of Tertullian and other Trinitarians. In it, Dr. Kelly says that a corollary exists that the Father suffered and ‘underwent Christ’s other human experiences.’ If this is truly Patripassianism, then this too is foreign to a biblical understanding of God.

Noetus is said to have pointed to the Scriptures for his support and to his accusers he would retort ‘What wrong have I done, glorifying one only God, Christ, Who was born, suffered and died?’ He was condemned, his detractors tell us, with the Elders using the Rule of Faith. His disciple, however, escaped and finding himself in Rome he found a pupil in Cleomenes during the bishopric of Zephyrinus. (198-217). It is this Bishop of Rome that Hippolytus would find himself set against which would force schism in Rome. Cleomenes, according to Hippolytus, ‘believed in one identical Godhead Which could be designated indifferently Father or Son; the terms did not stand for real distinctions, but were mere names applicable at different times.’ This seems to align itself with the modern Modalistic creed (Father in Creation, Son in Redemption, Holy Spirit in Regeneration); however it is not biblical and has no real support in history or Tradition.

Dr. Kelly commits an error by accepting Hippolytus’ unconditional comparison of Heraclitus and Modalism, forgetting that it was Justin that used Heraclitus for the basis of his own Logos Doctrine. Only in the works of Hippolytus do we read of Heraclitus and Modalism, so that the comparison is made by an opponent and not by the Modalists.

Praxeas is still a mystery, Dr. Kelly points out, in that he is a ‘shadowy figure’ whose given name may well be a nickname or a pseudonym for Callistus. His doctrine was that the Father and the Son are one identical person, with the Word having no independent subsistence. It was the Father who became His own Son and in the person of the Son, was born, suffered and died. He being invisible became visible; impassible became passible. This doctrine would be acceptable to the modern oneness believer, yet, Praxeas did not stop there. He proceeding, in an almost Dynamic fashion, Praxeas held that the ‘man Jesus was, strictly speaking, the Son, while the Christ, i.e. the divine element was properly the Father’. For Praxeas, which was an improvement on Noetus, the Son suffered while the Father co-suffered. Dr. Kelly rightly points out that this was close to the adoptionism of the heretics that followed Theodotus, but he fails to note that at no time did Praxeas call Jesus an inspired man. (pg 121)

On Sabellius, Modalism took a deeper stand on Scripture. The ‘author’ of the doctrine was attacked by Hippolytus, and many others throughout history, but enjoyed the confidence of Callistus, Zephyrinus’ successor but would later be excommunicated by him. This ‘sophisticated Modalism’ as Dr. Kelly calls it (pg 121) attempted to meet objections. Again, Sabellius is only seen through the lenses of history, and those lenses were created by his detractors. Even Dr. Kelly says ‘Unfortunately we cannot be sure all the details of the position…can be attributed to Sabellius himself.’ Most of the evidence about Sabellius comes from over a century after his lifetime when his theology ‘and that of the much more familiar Marcellus of Ancyra were hopelessly confused.

This Modalist view the Godhead as a monad, using the Sun with the warmth and light that it generates as an analogy. ‘The Father was…the form of essence, and the Son and the Spirit His modes of self-expression.’ He believe that the divine monad experienced ‘dilation’ so that the ‘Father by process of development projecting Himself first as Son and then as Spirit. For Sabellius, the Godhead was ‘’law-giver’ as the Father’ while in redemption ‘It was projected like a ray of sun, and then was withdrawn’; then It ‘operated as Spirit to inspire and bestow grace.’ Here we see a fuller expression of the modern oneness creed.

Both Zephyrinus and Callistus ‘sympathized with the widespread popular reaction against the theories of Hippolytus and Tertullian, which they regarded as leading to ditheism. In standing against the encroachment of the tri-personal view of the Godhead, Zephyrinus said ‘I know of only God, Christ Jesus, and none other Who was born and suffered’. In this statement is summed the correct the Modalistic attitude towards the Godhead. It is these ‘simple and uncultured’ Christians (from the words of Tertullian) that view the new talk (Dr. Kelly’s words) of ‘Persons’ of the Godhead with ‘unconcealed suspicion’. The Bishop, although resenting the ditheism sounding of the new ‘Persons’, still sought to make the distinction between the Father and the Son clear, by adding to the above statement ‘it was not the Father Who died, but the Son’.

Callistus was similar in his doctrine to his predecessor. According to Dr. Kelly, the bishop placed great emphasis on the divine unity. For him, God constituted one object of presentation – the one Personage of the Apologists. He did, however, admit the distinction of the Father and the Word, which became the Son in the historical Incarnation. He maintained that they ‘are one and same reality.’ ‘The Word was not ‘another alongside the Father’. He maintained the doctrine of co-suffering, as it was the divine spirit that the Father was that was identical with the Word. Dr. Kelly calls Zephyrinus and Callistis ‘conservatives holding fast to a Monarchian tradition which antedated the movement of thought inaugurated by the Apologists.’ The only group that antedated the Apologists were the Apostles themselves.

I have applied these things to myself and Apollos because of you, brothers and sisters, so that through us you may learn “not to go beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of the one against the other. (1Co 4:6 NET)

“What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from “the porch of Solomon,” who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.” Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.”

Exodus 3.6 with 20.3; Isaiah 44.6 with 45.14 and “This is our God, and there shall none other be accounted of in comparison of him He hath found out all the way of knowledge, and hath given it unto Jacob his servant, and to Israel his beloved. Afterward did he shew himself upon earth, and conversed with men. “ (Bar 3:35-37 KJV) As well as John 10.30, 14.8-10 and Romans 9.5. Even Dr. Kelly says that these Scriptures ‘seemed to point to the identity of Father and Son.

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0 Replies to “Reviewing Early Christian Doctrines – 3rd Century Trinitarianism (pt1)”

  1. Dear Joel,

    A wonderful book on  Tertullian is by Eric Osborn…’Tertullian, first theologian of the West’. (Cambridge..paperback edtion is 2003). I love Tertullian’s passion for opposites and his views on antitheses in God. But always  contingency and rational argument.
    This book is a must read for the shape and ideas of Western Christianity.

    Fr. Robert

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