History Of The Doctrine Concerning The Nature Of God In The Early Centuries Of Christianity
Summary – By Don Barnett
Christianity inherited the Monotheism of Israel, and through the teachings of Jesus, the apostles, and the Scriptures claimed that Jesus was the God of Israel who was manifested in the flesh, received up into Glory, and who came as the Holy Spirit. The doctrine was preached everywhere, and was the dominant doctrine on the Godhead during the first three centuries.
Christian Philosophers united the concepts of Judaism, Greek Philosophy, and Christianity to form a Logos-Christology doctrine that denied the divinity of Jesus.
Hippolytus, a strong advocate of the Logos-Christology doctrine, vigorously opposed the Apostolic doctrine that God is one person in three manifestations (later called “Modal Monarchianism”). Sabellius, the leading defender of Monarchianism, was excommunicated in 217 by the Bishop of Rome, who devised a compromise doctrine.
Tertullian developed and defined the doctrine of Logos-Christology as three persons in a Trinity, but one God, in which Jesus was subordinate to the Father. And yet, he used the legal Latin term for “persons” meaning “manifestations” or “masks,” rather than “personalities.” The Holy Spirit was said to proceed from the Father, through the Son.
Saint Augustine, a century later, developed this teaching into a doctrine of the Trinity, in which all three persons were separate personalities, all co-equal and co-eternal.
While this compromise doctrine was cementing two rival factions together, two splits had developed: (1) Some Monarchians had been influenced by Logos- Christology until a Monarchian developed in which Jesus was said to be without Deity until His baptism. This group, known as Dynamic Monarchianism, never became large, percentage-wise. (2) Many Logos-Christology disciples insteadof following the evolution to Trinitarianism, led by Tertullian, Athanasius and Augustine, joined themselves to Arius. Arius imbibed some Monarchianism, some theories of Origen, and invented some of his own — all of which he built upon the Logos-Christology foundation. This doctrine, called Arianism, taughtthat Christ was human, created by God out of nothing, and made into a lower god.
The Emperor Constantine ordered a council at Nicea to resolve the difference in theology on the Godhead. This council developed into a heated battle that ended in a victory for the Trinitarians. The Trinitarian position was then strengthened by a new Nicean Creed that was carefully worded toprohibit any Arianism or Monarchianism (then called Sabellianism) and to strengthen the Trinitarian conceptions. No other views were allowed.
Arianism was not dead, however, and continued to reappear (several times as victors, banishing Trinitarian Bishops) until the reign of Theodosius. Monarchianism never again became predominant in the West, but the scriptural teaching of one God in three manifestations has reappeared many times in many generations, and exists even today in numbers in the hundreds of thousands.
In 381, the Nicean Creed was again modified to include the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit in the doctrine of the Trinity, and to assert the pre-existence of the Son of God. This tenent, adopted by the General Council in 451 as a dogma, is the “Nicean Creed” of today, which wecall the “doctrine of the Trinity.”
That the doctrine of the Trinity was a long, slow, hotly-contested development is quite evident from church history. That the present doctrine of the Trinity was the teaching of the early church in the first century is an absurdity in the face of church history. It would be impossible for theapostolic Church to teach a doctrine that was only attained after several centuries of doctrinal evolution, church council debates, compromises, and mergers and divisions of ecclesiastical positions.