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"Trinity" in the Ante-Nicene Fathers

By Gary F. Zeolla

I have seen many on the Internet and elsewhere claim that the doctrine of the Trinity was somehow "invented" at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, or sometime later in the fourth century. But this claim would mean that the doctrine or even the word "Trinity" should not have existed in Christianity prior to this time.

So I decided to test this theory by doing a simple computer search on my new SAGE Digital Library. This CD ROM contains the full text of all 38 volumes of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, along with many other Christian documents. The phrase "Ante-Nicene Fathers" refers to the Church leaders prior to the time of Nicea. It was this section that was the focus of my study.

I typed "Trinity" in the search function and set it to "Match Whole Word Only" and "Match Case." The search then goes to and highlights every occurrence of the word, one-by-one. So I counted the occurrence of "Trinity" throughout the entire set.

I counted a total of 106 occurrences. This may not sound like a large number; but it is significant. How could the doctrine have been invented in the fourth century if Church leaders in the second and third centuries were talking about it?

And they were not just talking about the Trinity. In many cases they were explaining and defending the doctrine. At other times they were simply referring to the Trinity in a matter of fact way, as if they knew their readers would know what they were talking about without having to explain it.

Moreover, sometimes the term was expanded with some interesting adjectives. Some phrases I noticed through the search were: "Holy Trinity" - "blessed Trinity" - "perfect Trinity" - "Eternal Trinity" - "sacred Trinity" and "most divine Trinity." In writings shortly before Nicea were the phrases: "holy and consubstantial Trinity" and "consubstantial and indivisible Trinity." All these statements make it appear that the Church Fathers agreed with the doctrine!

Furthermore, there are other ways of expressing the idea that God is three-in-one than just with the term "Trinity." So my simple search probably missed places where writers were discussing the doctrine but without actually using the term. So I glanced through some of the documents.

I noticed God being said to be: Three-in-One, one Deity in three Persons, three Persons in one substance, and the like. Tertullian (c.160-220 AD), even devoted an entire book to defending the Trinity (Against Praxeas). And note, Tertullian lived over a hundred years prior to Nicea.

Now, none of this means the doctrine of the Trinity is necessarily true and Biblical. But it does show that the idea of God being three-in-one, and the use of the word "Trinity" most definitely existed long before Nicea.

So why do I constantly see people claiming the Trinity was "invented" at Nicea or even later? The only explanation I can think of is that such people have never actually read the writings of the Church Fathers for themselves. But with copies of writings the Church Fathers being available in so many forms, this is inexcusable.

There are, of course, various hardcopy versions of their writings available. Also, many of these writings are posted at various Web sites. And the above mentioned CD ROM is an excellent resource these and many other Christian writings.

I would recommend that the reader check some of these sources for yourself before making or believing any bold proclamations about what Church Fathers taught or did not teach (Prov 18:13,15).

For a more detailed discussion on this subject, see the two-part article
The Father, the Son, and the Spirit in the Post-Apostolic Church.


Clarifications

In order to respond to comments I have received on my commentary above, I would like to clarify a few points. First, the comments I have received can be summarized as, "Yes, it is true that some used the term ‘Trinity’ before Nicea; however, these early writers did not really believe what latter Trinitarian theology came to assert."

In response, I will admit the Ante-Nicene Fathers did not explain the Biblical teaching of a three-in-one God exactly as was later done. Also some of their language would be considered a little "sloppy" by later standards.

But it must be remembered, they were defending God’s three-in-oneness against three fronts: the Modalists who asserted God’s oneness but denied His three-ness; the tri-theists who asserted God’s three-ness but denied His oneness; and the subordinationests who denied Jesus’ deity.

When writing against one of these view, they might go too far the other way and sound like they were asserting one of the others. For instance, when writing against, the Modalists, in an effort to asserts the distinction between the Persons, the Ante-Nicene Fathers might sound like subordinationests.

Church historian Philip Schaff discusses the subordinationist leanings found in some of Justin Martyr’s writings. But he then writes, "… had he lived later, he would have subscribed the Nicene Creed." Schaff then adds, "The same could be said of Tertullian and of Origen." He then makes similar comments about Ireaneus and Dionysius (History of the Christian Church. Eerdmans, Vol. 2, pp. 550, 553-4, 556).

So the views of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, Irenaeus, and Dionysius would be consistent with later Trinitarian theology. The same could also be said of the other Fathers and writings I refer to in my two-part article The Father, the Son, and the Spirit in the Post-Apostolic Church.

Basically, all of these writers were struggling with how best to explain and defend the Biblical teaching that God is three-in-one. The full-blown doctrine of the Trinity won out as it best accounts for all of the Biblical evidence.

Notes: the SAGE Digital Library is now called The Master Christian Library. See Classic Christian Writings for links to Web sites with the works of the Church Fathers and other important Christian documents.

Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light

"Trinity" in the Ante-Nicene Fathers. Copyright 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.dtl.org).

The above article was published in Darkness to Light newsletter in January 1998.
The Clarification was added in April 1998.

The Doctrine of the Trinity: Post Apostolic Church
The Doctrine of the Trinity      The Post-Apostolic Church

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