Reviewing Early Christian Doctrines – The Divine ‘Triad’ (pt2)

*Note: This is the second part, and much delayed review/response. I have tried to narrow in on some main points that I hope can lead to further discussion. I am intrigued by the early ‘economic Trinity’ as expressed by Irenaeus and others and hope to study more on it. Until then, perhaps we can discuss this issues here.

In studying Ignatius, we are led to believe that this disciple of Peter at Antioch was the surest example of Apostolic preaching in the early Church, after all, he calls Christ God and dates the divine Sonship form the incarnation (Kelly, pg 92). In the Epistle to the Magnesians 8.2, Ignatius declares that there is ‘one God, Who has revealed Himself through His Son Jesus Christ, Who is His Word emerging from silence.’ Further, Christ is the ‘unlying mouth by which the Father spoke truly.’ Dr. Kelly rightly first surmises that Ignatius is an ‘economic Trinitarian’, meaning that he ‘regard God as an undifferentiated monad in His essential being, the Son and the Spirit being merely forms of modes of the Father’s self-revelation, only distinguishable from Him in the process of revelation.’ (pg93). If the common Modalist or oneness believer will step away from the word ‘Trinitarian’, it is easy to see that Dr. Kelly has defined the common definition of the oneness doctrine. It is God who has revealed Himself in His Son Jesus Christ, the distinction being at the moment of Incarnation and thus ending at the Ascension.

Unfortunately, neither Dr. Kelly nor Trinitarians stop the analysis there; he goes on to say that the definition that is so easily applied to Ignatius’ view of the Deity is wrong and ‘misleading’, yet it is there definition of the Trinity that is retro-applied in order to see Ignatius in the Trinitarian light. However, in doing so and in trying to state the proof of such a belief, he gives us further examples that Ignatius believed in an economic Deity. In the same epistle as above, Ignatius states that the Word ‘existed with the Father before the ages’ while expressing an emanatist theology as found in Wisdom (7.25-26) and Hebrews (1.3) when he says that Christ ‘came forth from the unique Father, was with Him and has returned to Him’ (6.1; 7.2). This is not difficult for a Modalist with an economic view of the Deity. Dr. Kelly finishes his thoughts on Ignatius by acknowledging ‘the only hint he (Ignatius) gives of the nature of this distinction within the unity of the divine spirit is that Christ is the Father’s ‘thought’ (pg93).

Not wishing to spend too much time on the relative unknown Hermas, Dr. Kelly notes that the Shepherd confuses the Spirit with the Son of God, possibly leading to a dyadic view of the Godhead. It is also noted that Hermas seems to view Christ in adoptionist terms as he points to the flesh of Jesus as a ‘partner with the Holy Spirit.’ On the other hand, Hermas follows the so far Tradition view that the distinction begins at the Incarnation. (pg94)

Dr. Kelly notes (pg95) that the evidence that is collected from the Apostolic Fathers is ‘meager, and tantalizingly inconclusive’ although he notes that the pre-existence of Christ was ‘generally taken for granted, as was His role in creation as well as redemption.’ These themes coalesce with Pauline and Johannine thought as well as the Wisdom Tradition in Late Judaism, however ‘of a doctrine of the Trinity in the strict sense there is of course no sign, although the Church’s triadic formula left its mark everywhere’. Can there be a triadic formula without the Trinity as developed through Nicaea and Chalcedon? Only in a proper theology, such as Modalism, or as Dr. Kelly said, ‘economic Trinitarianism’.

Dr. Kelly (pg95) says that the Apologists were the first to try to fit the Gospel into an intellectual framework, proposing a solution which essentially was ‘a pre-existent Christ’ was ‘the Father’s thought or mind and that as manifested in creation and revelation, He was its extrapolation or expression.’ This, of course, was essentially the doctrine of the Logos, however it must be reminded that of the 330 times that the Greek logos is used in the New Testament, only four times does it carry theological implications, and only by John. While many continued to seek the meaning of logos in the Stoics or in Philo, they failed to use the Scriptures that the Church already had which was Wisdom. Even Dr. Kelly admits that the early Church choose Philo and his use of logos than John’s, which does give way to a distinction, more so than either John or Wisdom’s author intended. In using Greek philosophy, they gained the idea of a technical distinction from Stoicism, which gave Christianity the philosophy of the immanent word and the word uttered.

This teaching, according to Dr. Kelly, first clearly appears Justin who used Greek philosophy to underlie any thought that he had. He even went so far as to declare that long dead pagans, such as Hereclitus (c600B.C.), were in fact Christians because they had developed the philosophy of the logos. It was this Logos, that had ‘united men to God’ in order that they would have ‘knowledge of Him’ that Justin said became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. According to Dr. Kelly, the logos/Christ was not merely distinct in name only, but also ‘numerically’ (quoting Justin). This development was supported by three points, namely:

· The alleged appearances of God in the Old Testament which suggests that ‘below the Creator of all things there is Another Who is, and is called, God and Lord’, since it is inconceivable that the ‘Master and Father of all things should have abandoned all supercelestial affairs and made Himself visible in a minute corner of the world’.

  • Frequent Old Testament passages which represent God as conversing with another, ‘Who is presumable a rational being like Himself’
  • The Wisdom Texts, such as Proverbs 8.22, since ‘everyone must agree that the offspring is other than its begetter.

Justin would say of the logos that ‘having been put forth as an offspring from the Father, was with Him before all creatures, and the Father had converse with Him’ but that he was ‘adorable, He is God’ while also saying ‘we adore, next to God, the Logos derived from the increate and ineffable God, seeing that for our sakes He became man.’ A quick glance as Dr. Kelly’s quotes from Justin seems to display that Justin say the Logos as a separate being. Further, Justin, in his 1st Apology (13.3) seemed to speak of the Logos as a ‘second God’ and worshipped ‘in a secondary rank’. (pg101). Justin also made an attempt to ‘extract testimony to His (the ‘prophetic Spirit’) as a third divine being from Plato’s writings’ (pf100).

Tatian, as we know, was a disciple of Justin and employed the same language as Justin in dealing with the Logos. Like Justin, Tatian, saw the Logos as being ‘born’ but not being severed from the essence that is God. This is clearly a Trinitarian concept from the West. However, Tatian had a sharper context of the Logos than Justin, especially when it came to the generation of the Logos. According to Tatian, ‘before creation God was alone, the Logos being immanent in Him as His potentiality for creating all tings, but at the moment of creation He leaped froth from the Father as His ‘primordial work’. Here again, we see a great divergence from biblical concepts, words, and ideas.

  1. Dr. Kelly (pg100) makes two points in the Apologists’ ‘which, because of their far-reaching importance, must be heavily underlined:
  2. For all of these Apologists, the ‘description ‘God the Father’ connoted, not the first Person of the Holy Trinity, but the one Godhead considered as author of whatever exists’
  3. All, ‘Athenagoras included, dated the generation of the Logos, and so His eligibility for the title ‘Son’, not from his origination within the being of the Godhead, but from His emission’ or emanation ‘for the purposes of creation, revelation, and redemption.’

Dr. Kelly wants a firm grasp on these two concepts or he fears that a distorted view of their theology is likely to happen. Two ‘stock criticisms’, as Dr. Kelly says, are that ‘they failed to distinguish the Logos from the Father until He was required for the work of creation, and that, as a corollary, they were guilty of subordinating the Son to the Father. Remember, Nicaea established that the Son and the Spirit were co-eternal with the Father, and all three ungenerate, yet, the early Apologists lined upon with each other, and with the view of ‘oneness’ doctrine, that the Logos was generated for a certain purpose, and like the economic view of the Deity, once those purposes were completed, the distinction ceased.

In discussing the Apologists and the Trinity, Dr. Kelly fails to take into context the word ‘trinity’ in Theophilus’ writings, who was the first person to use this word. To quote Theophilus,

But the moon wanes monthly, and in a manner dies, being a type of man; then it is born again, and is crescent, for a pattern of the future resurrection. In like manner also the 101 three days which were before the luminaries, are types of the Trinity, of God, and His Word, and His wisdom.

If we were but to stop reading at this point, we would understand that Theophilus did indeed see a Trinity of persons, or at least was driving that way, however, Theophilus continued his words with,

And the fourth is the type of man, who needs light, that so there may be God, the Word, wisdom, man.

The Greek is ‘Τριάδος’. The Trinitarian claim about Theophilus is based on a misunderstood and mistranslated passage in his writings. It is mistranslated because trinity is not a Greek word. Thus, the proper translation would be: ‘In like manner also the three days which were before the luminaries, are types of the three of God, and His Word, and His wisdom.’ Adding to the three of God, is a fourth, that of man. It would be somewhat in error to say that Humanity is a Fourth Person in the Godhead.

In discussing the third Person of the Trinity, we find little evidence in the Apologists for the inclusion of the Spirit, for Dr. Kelly says, ‘Yet, as compared with their thought about the Logos, the Apologists appear to have been extremely vague as to the exact status and role of the Spirit.’ Even as late as 380, Gregory Nazianzus said, “Of the wise among us, some consider the Holy Ghost an influence, others a creature, others God himself, and again others know not which way to decide, from reverence, as they say, for the Holy Scripture, which declares nothing exact in the case. For this reason they waver between worshipping and not worshipping the Holy Ghost, and strike a middle course, which is in fact, however, a bad one”

Dr. Kelly, showing that the ‘thought was highly confused’ says that Justin ‘attributes the inspiration of the prophets to the Logos’ while Theophilus ‘suggests that it was the Logos Who, being divine spirit, illuminated their minds.’ Justin fails to even assign a place for the Spirit in the incarnation. He assigned the ‘power of the Most High’, as recorded in Luke 1.35, not as the Spirit, but as the Logos, ‘Whom he envisaged as entering the womb of the Blessed Virgin and acting as agent of His won incarnation.’ Somehow, it seems that Justin missed the first part of the verse, which in its entirety reads:

And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. (Luk 1:35 NKJV)

Dr. Kelly notes that much of Justin’s language points to a ‘subpersonal’ Spirit, but approaches the personal when he speaks of the ‘prophetic Spirit’. Returning to a thought made before, Justin further regulates the Spirit to a third rank, after Christ.

Irenaeus seems to undertake the economic Deity and expound upon it. He could claim that ‘by the very essence and nature of His being there is but one God’ and yet ‘according to the economy of our redemption there are both Father and Son.’ Dr. Kelly makes mention that Irenaeus had a ‘firmer grasp and more explicit statement of this notion of ‘the economy’’. Applying Dr. Kelly’s definition of the ‘economy’, it is believable that Modalism as presently understood existed as a doctrine – more so than the Trinity – from the time of the Apostles to Irenaeus, as we have seen. (It is interesting to note Dr. Kelly’s comments that for Irenaeus, ‘Son’ and ‘Word’ are merely synonyms, as this author believes.)

In exploring the Spirit and Irenaeus, Dr. Kelly says, ‘although Irenaeus nowhere expressly designates Him God’ the Spirit clearly ‘ranked as divine in his yes’. In this picture, Kelly (pg107) states that ‘we have …the most complete, and also most explicitly Trinitarian, to be met with before Tertullian.’ Yet, he goes on to issue was is an economic view of the Deity, and a rather modalistic view as well, that what Irenaeus lacks is a picture of co-equality, ‘but rather of a single personage, the Father Who is Godhead Itself, with His mind, or rationality, and His wisdom.’ This, Kelly states, is because of their ‘fundamental tenet of monotheism’ going on to say that this type of thought ‘has been given the label ‘economic Trinitarianism’, but caution is well heeded. This term, like the term Trinity, is only backwards applied, yet in the concept of ‘economic Trinitarianism’ we find striking similarity to oneness doctrine, minus the unbiblical words of ‘economy’ and ‘Trinity’.


Or, emanation

History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.

You Might Also Like

Leave a Reply, Please!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.