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Church History Debates: Why Believe the Trinity?

The word “Trinity” takes the prefix “tri” (three) and connects it with the word “unity.” The doctrine teaches that God is a unity of three persons. The word itself isn’t used in the Old or New Testament. Is it a biblical teaching, nonetheless? What follows is a brief retelling of the story of how early Christians formulated the doctrine as they synthesized biblical truths about God.

Background and Summary

Two heresies illustrate the extremes inside of which the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity falls. Arianism emphasizes the distinctiveness between the Father and the other members of the Godhead to the detriment of their essential unity. Monarchianism (also called “modalism”) is the belief that the three “persons” are actually modes of the same person; this belief emphasizes the oneness of the Godhead to the detriment of the three persons’ distinctiveness.[1]

As Gregory of Nazianzus taught, God is neither a mere unity “as the Jews teach,” nor a mere plurality “as the pagans think.”[2] True, the Old Testament is unwaveringly monotheistic, but the New Testament presents not only the Father as God but also the Son and Spirit. Furthermore, the Old Testament makes room for a plurality within the unity with its “Angel of the Lord.”

Thus, the church, beginning with Tertullian, began to formulate a logical synthesis of the two Testaments’ view of God, which would provide the parameters for the Christological debates.[3] Forefront in the doctrine’s formulation was humanity’s need for salvation, for only a truly divine Christ can save. First, Tertullian provided the basic terms, by distinguishing substance (essence) from person. The Cappadocian Fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus) taught both that God is a unity with a single will and also that God is a trinity. The Members’ distinctions lie in their relationships with each other—what the Cappadocians called ingenerateness, begottenness, and procession.[4]


“God is neither a mere unity ‘as the Jews teach,’ nor a mere plurality ‘as the pagans think.'”


Augustine further developed the doctrine, but he went further than the Cappadocians in emphasizing the “complementarity” between Father and Son and in repudiating any subordination between the Members of the Godhead. Following Augustine, the picture of God in the West began to center on the more inaccessible Trinity as a whole, rather than on the individual Members. In the East, John of Damascus added to the doctrine the Eastern idea that the Father is the “Source of Deity,” thus making the “filioque” (that the Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son) a dangerous insertion.[5]

One might ask why such a tedious doctrine as the doctrine of the Trinity is so essential to Christianity, even when the word Trinity is never used in the Bible. Though understanding its complications is not necessary for the believer, the believer’s salvation rests on realities that can only be understood in a basically Trinitarian framework. For our salvation rests on the indwelling of the divine Spirit through the atonement of the divine Son made to the divine Father.[6]

Early Proponents of the Trinity

Tertullian provided the church with the basic framework for the doctrine of the Trinity, teaching that in God is one essence with three Persons.[7]

The Cappadocian Fathers were two brothers, Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus. They taught the unity as well as triunity of God.[8]

Augustine taught the Trinity while minimizing any subordination among the Members.[9]

John of Damascus continued the tradition of the Cappadocians and Augustine while adding the Eastern view that the Father is the “Source of Deity.”[10]

Early Opponents of the Trinity

Arianism held that the Father and the Logos were two different substances, with Christ ultimately a created being.[11]

Monarchianism (also modalism and sabellianism) held that the Members of the Godhead were actually the same Person in three different modes.[12]

Biblical Basis of the Trinity

Here is an example of the scriptures which show God to be three persons:

“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.'” (Matthew 3:16-17, NIV)


“As soon as Jesus was baptized . . . the Spirit of God . . . And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son.'”


Excerpt:

From Tertullian:

“Thus the connection of the Father in the Son, and of the Son in the Paraclete, produces three coherent Persons, who are yet distinct One from Another. These Three are one essence, not one Person, as it is said, ‘I and the Father are One,’ in respect of unity of substance, not singularity of number.”[13]


[1] Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988),145.

[2] Brown, 147.

[3] Brown, 147-148.

[4] Brown, 149.

[5] Brown, 155-156.

[6] Brown, 152.

[7] Brown, 149.

[8] Brown, 150.

[9] Brown, 155.

[10] Brown, 156.

[11] Brown, 107.

[12] David F. Wright, “What the First Christians Believed,” in Introduction to the History of Christianity, ed. Tim Dowley (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 113.

[13] Brown, 145.

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