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The Father, the Son, and the Spirit
In the Post-Apostolic Church: Part Two
By Gary F. Zeolla
What did Christians immediately after the time of the apostles believe about the relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? Part One of this article looked at important Church documents of the early second century. This part will study the works of Church Fathers from the late second to mid-third centuries.
Athenagoras (Late Second Century)
Athenagoras was a professor of philosophy in Athens. He originally intended to write a treatise against Christianity. So, as a true scholar, he began studying the Scriptures in order to be able to more effectually refute them. But instead he, "became convinced of their truth, and consequently, turned from being a persecutor to an ardent defender of the Christian faith" (Moyer, p.21; cp. Gal 1:23).
Athenagoras' most important work is called, A Plea for the Christians. In this book he explains and defends Christian beliefs and values.
He begins by discussing the Christian belief about the nature of God, "Our doctrine acknowledges ONE GOD, the Maker of the universe, who Himself is UNCREATED (for that which is does not come to be, but that which is not) but has MADE ALL THINGS BY THE LOGOS which is from Him" (Bush, p.38; Psalm 33:6; 90:2; John 1:3).
So Athenagoras believed "all things" were created by the Logos. He thus separates the Son from the creation. Also note, for Athenagoras, "uncreated" means something which "does not come to be" (see Exod 3:14).
He further states that Christians, "... acknowledge and firmly hold that He is God who has framed ALL THINGS by the Logos, and HOLDS THEM IN PLACE BY HIS SPIRIT" (Bush, p.40). If "all" created things are held in place by the Spirit, the Spirit cannot be a part of the created things but must also be eternal (Heb 9:14).
He next proclaims that Christians believe in "the unity of the Deity" and exposes, "the absurdities of polytheism" (Bush, pp.40-42; Isa 43:10; 45:20-25). He then declares, "... we acknowledge also a Son of God" (Prov 30:4).
Athenagoras explains the nature of this Son of God:
But the Son of God is the Logos of the Father, in idea and operation; for after the pattern of Him and by Him were all things made, THE FATHER AND SON BEING ONE. And, the Son being in the Father and the Father in the Son, IN ONENESS AND POWER OF SPIRIT, the understanding and reason of the Father is the Son of God.... HE IS THE FIRST PRODUCT OF GOD, NOT AS HAVING BEEN BROUGHT INTO EXISTENCE - for from the beginning, God, who is eternal mind, had the Logos in Himself, BEING FROM ETERNITY INSTINCT WITH LOGOS (Bush, pp. 42,43; Micah 5:2).
Athenagoras first says the Logos is "the first product of God." But before anyone can get the wrong impression that this statement means he believes the Son was created, he declares the Logos had "not been brought into existence." Remember his earlier definition of uncreated was, "did not come to be."
Also, the Father is said to have His Logos "from eternity." So whatever is meant by the Son being, "the first product of God" - it cannot mean He is created.
He now makes an interesting statement about the Spirit, "The Holy Spirit Himself also, which operates in the prophets, we assert to be an affluence of God, flowing from Him, and returning back again like a beam of the sun" (Bush, p.43).
Taken by itself, this statement could sound like he believed the Spirit was just a force. And it is statements like this one (and the previous one about the Son being "the first product of God") which the unscrupulous will latch onto and quote out of context to try to "prove" the Church Fathers did not believe in the Trinity.
Even worse, such writers often do not fully document their sources. This makes it almost impossible to check the accuracy of the quotations. A "good" example of this unscholarly and dishonest practice can be seen in the Jehovah's Witnesses' pamphlet, "Should You Believe in the Trinity?" Page 7 contains short quotes from six Church Fathers; but NO sources are given for any of the quotations.
This ministry, however, ALWAYS provides full documentation for ALL quotes in our articles. We have nothing to hide. As for Jehovah's Witnesses . . . ?
Having said this, it is time to look at what else Athenagoras has to say on this subject. In the very next sentence, he says Christians are, "... men who speak of GOD THE FATHER, and of GOD THE SON, and of THE HOLY SPIRIT, and who declare their POWER IN UNION and their DISTINCTION IN ORDER" (Bush, p.43; Titus 3:4-6; 1Pet 1:2).
Note the phrase, "God the Son." Also, if he believed the Son was created and the Spirit just a force, how could he say they have "power in union" with the Father? And be sure to note, despite this equality, there is still a "distinction in order." This idea will be discussed in detail later.
He now moves to a discussion about angels and demons, "We employ language which makes a distinction between God and matter, and the natures of the two. For, as we acknowledge a God, and a Son His Logos, and a Holy Spirit, UNITED IN ESSENCE .... so also do we apprehend THE EXISTENCE OF OTHER POWERS ... (Bush, pp.51,52).
So Athenagoras teaches there is only two kinds of existence, "God and matter." The Son and Spirit are classified on the Father's side. The "other powers" (angels and demons) are distinct from these Three.
Further, the Son and Spirit are "united in essence" with the Father. "Essence" means, "The intrinsic or indispensable properties that serve to characterize or identifies something" (American, p.465). Two of God's "indispensable properties" are His eternality and personality (see Exod 3:14). So if the Son and Spirit have the essence of God, they must be uncreated Persons.
So, looking at ALL he has to say on this subject, it is seen Athenagoras clearly believed the Father, Son, and Spirit all have the essence of Deity. Yet, earlier, he emphatically proclaimed the Christian belief of there being only ONE God.
But how can there be only one God if THREE Persons have the essence of Deity? For help in answering this difficult question another Church Father will be studied.
Tertullian (c.160-220 AD)
"Undoubtedly, Tertullian is one of the greatest of the early church apologists" (Moyer, p.83). Tertullian's most important work is titled simply, The Apology.
In this book, Tertullian declares, "We have been taught that He [the Son] proceeds forth from God, and in that procession He is generated; so that He is the Son of God, and is CALLED GOD FROM UNITY OF SUBSTANCE WITH GOD" (Bush, pp.92,93).
The Son is "called God from unity of substance with God." This declaration is similar to Athenagoras teaching the Father, Son and Spirit are "united in essence" as "substance" means, "Essential nature, essence" (American, p.1213; Rev 7:10,17).
Tertullian continues, "He [the Son] is made a SECOND IN MANNER OF EXISTENCE - IN POSITION, NOT IN NATURE" (Bush, p.93). "Nature" refers to, "The essential characteristics and qualities of a person or thing" (American, p.832; For the rest of this article, essence, nature and substance will be considered to be synonyms).
So Tertullian says the Father and Son are equal in essence; they have the same intrinsic qualities. But the Son is "second" to the Father "in position." But is it possible for someone to be equal in essence to another but be below him in position?
The Scriptures teach all people are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26,27). Thus, we are all of the same essence - equal in all essential properties (Gal 3:28).
Yet, the Bible also teaches certain persons should submit to others (Luke 7:8; Rom 13:1-5; Eph 5:21-6:9; Phil 2:3,4; Col 3:18-22; Heb 13:17; 1Pet 3:1-7; 5:5). And further, not accepting both parts of this pattern can lead to deleterious effects in a society (see 2Tim 3:1-8; 2Pet 9-11; Jude 8).
So it clearly possible for one person to submit to or be in a "second place" to another yet without essential human equality being forfeited.
In a similar way, the Son can be second in position to the Father yet they can still be equal in essence (1Cor 11:3). Moreover, the Son willingly submits to the Father (Phil 2:5-8) and the Spirit glorifies the Son (John 16:14). But the essential unity of the Godhead is never compromised by this behavior (Rom 8:9-11).
Elsewhere, Tertullian further clarified the early Church's belief that God is three-in-one, "In his Against Praxeas he set forth the first statement of the Trinity as ONE ESSENCE IN THREE PERSONS" (Moyer, p.396; Note: "person" means, "A self-conscious being capable of thought, will and interaction with others" - adapted from American, p.925 and Erickson, p.127).
So according to Tertullian's definition, God is one in essence, three in Person. And since "essence" and "person" are not identical, there is no logical contradiction in the doctrine of the Trinity.
In other words, within the one essence of God there eternally exists three distinct yet equal centers of consciousness. As such, love and communication are possible within the Godhead (John 17:24). Our ability to love and communicate results from our being created in the image of the triune God (Gen 1:26,27; 1John 4:7-11).
And please note, Tertullian did not INVENT the idea of a three-in-one God; he was merely EXPLAINING this attribute of God. The concept itself was handed down to him from the Apostles through the Scriptures and other Church Fathers.
Origen and the "Rule of Faith"
The next early Church document to be studied is the "Rule of Faith." Origen (c.185-235) explains what this phrase refers to, "The holy apostles, when preaching the faith of Christ, took certain doctrines, those namely which they believed to be the necessary ones, and delivered them in plainest terms to all believers" (Jude 3). So the Rule of Faith refers to the essential doctrines of Christianity.
Origen then outlines these beliefs, "First, that God is one, who created and set in order all things, and who, when NOTHING existed, caused the universe to be."
Next comes the section on the Son:
He who came to earth, was BEGOTTEN OF THE FATHER BEFORE EVERY CREATED THING. And after He had ministered to the Father in the foundation of ALL things, for ALL things were made through Him, in these last times HE EMPTIED HIMSELF AND WAS MADE FLESH, ALTHOUGH HE WAS GOD; AND BEING MADE MAN, HE STILL REMAINED WHAT HE WAS, NAMELY GOD. He took to Himself a body like our body, differing in this alone, that it was born of a virgin and of the Holy Spirit (above quotes by Origen from Stevenson, p.199).
C.S. Lewis explains the distinction between begotten and created (or made), " When you begat, you begat something of the same kind as yourself.... But when you make, you make something of a different kind from yourself.... What God begets is God; just as what man begets is man. What God creates is not God; just as what man creates is not man (Lewis, p.138).
So saying the Son is "begotten of the Father" in and of itself upholds His equality of essence with the Father. And one essential attribute of God is His eternality (see Exod 3:14; Ps 90:2; 102:25-27). Further, before God created there was no time (see Hebrews 1:2 where a literal translation would be that through the Son, God made "the ages" - or paraphrased, "the successions of time").
So the Son was "begotten" outside of time; hence, there was never a time when He was not (see Hebrews 1:10-12 where Ps 102:25-27, referenced above, is applied to the Son). Previous Church Fathers studied also asserted the eternality of the Son.
Second, the Rule of Faith declares the Son was God before the creation and He remained God even after He was "made man" (Ps 45:6,7; Heb 1:8; John 5:18; 20:28).
He did, however, in some way "empty Himself" at the incarnation (Phil 2:6-8). But this "emptying" did not cause a lost of His essential Deity. So the Son is now FULL GOD AND FULL MAN. But how should this "two-in-oneness" of the Son be defined?
Previously, Tertullian defined the Trinity as "three Persons in one essence." The Son can be said to be existing as ONE PERSON WITH TWO NATURES (full humanity AND full Deity; Col 2:9). A logical contradiction is again avoided since there is a distinction between "person" and "nature" (or essence).
The Rule of Faith also has a clause on the Holy Spirit. Origen writes, "The apostles delivered this doctrine, that THE HOLY SPIRIT IS UNITED IN HONOUR AND DIGNITY WITH THE FATHER AND THE SON" (Stevenson, p.199, 2Cor 13:14).
Only a Person can have "honour and dignity." Moreover, the Father, Son, and Spirit are "united" in this ascription. So the three must be of equal essence.
Dionysius of Alexandria (c.190-264 AD)
The last Church Father to be studied is Dionysius of Alexandria. In the letter to be quoted from, Dionysius is arguing against three different heresies about the Godhead which had arisen by the mid-third century.
The first heresy was "tritheism." This is the belief the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are three distinct gods. He writes, "I may reasonably turn to those who divide and cut to pieces and DESTROY that most sacred teaching of the Church of God, THE DIVINE MONARCHY, making it as it were three powers and three separate substances and godheads three" (cp. Deut 4:35; 6:4; Neh 9:6; Isa 44:6-8; 45:5,6).
The second heresy was "modalism" which claims the Father, Son, and Spirit are one and the same PERSON. Dionysius writes in reference to Sabellius (one of the main promoters of the idea), "HE BLASPHEMOUSLY SAYS THAT THE SON IS THE FATHER, and the Father is the Son" (Isa 48:16; Matt 3:16; John 8:17,18; 14:16,26; Acts 2:30-36).
The third heresy later came to be know as "Arianism" (after Arius who became the doctrine's most notable advocate). It taught the Son was created. Dionysius says in response, "Equally must one CENSURE THOSE WHO HOLD THE SON TO BE A WORK, and consider that the Lord came into being.... In many passages of the Divine Oracles is the Son said to be generated, BUT NOWHERE TO HAVE COME INTO BEING (John 1:1-3,18).
Dionysius' close to his letter will provide a fitting end to this two-part article:
"Neither then may we divide into three godheads THE WONDERFUL AND DIVINE MONAD: nor disparage with the name of "work" the dignity and exceeding majesty of the Lord; but we must believe in God the Father Almighty, and in Jesus Christ His Son, and in the Holy Spirit, and hold that to the God of the universe the Word is united.... For thus BOTH THE DIVINE TRIAD AND THE HOLY PREACHING OF THE MONARCHY WILL BE PRESERVED" (Stevenson, pp.252,3; Matt 28:19).
The links below are direct links to where the book can be purchased from Books-A-Million..
Bibliography: Note: All emphases in quotations are
Note: Scripture quotations appear as they are seen in the translation of the Church Father quoted from. Otherwise, Scripture references from: New King James Version . Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982, unless otherwise indicated.
American Heritage Dictionary . Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985.
Bush, Russ ed. Classical Readings in Christian Apologetics A. D. 100-1800 . Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986.
Dods, Marcus. Transl. We Don't Speak Great Things - We Live Them! Tyler, TX: Scroll Publishing, 1989.
Erickson, Millard. Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Moody Press, 1982.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity . New York: Collier Books, 1952.
Lightfoot, J.B. and J.R. Harmer. Apostolic Fathers . Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988.
Moyer, Elgin. Wycliffe Biographical Dictionary of the Church. Chicago: Moody Press, 1982.
"Should You Believe in the Trinity?" Brooklyn, NY: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1989.
Stevenson, J. ed. A New Eusebius. rev. by W.H.C Frend. London: SPCK, 1987.
The Father, the Son, and the Spirit in Post-Apostolic Church. Copyright © 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.dtl.org).
The above article originally appeared in Darkness to Light
newsletter in 1994.
It was posted on this Web site in July 1996.
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