The Unbreakable Threefold Cord: A Defense of the Trinity (Part 17)


Having answered all Mr. Burch’s “difficult questions,” we will now turn outside the Scriptures to the understanding of the early church to see how they understood what the Scriptures taught. These were the ones who could read the Scriptures in their original languages and access what the apostles taught outside the inspired writings. By observing the history of the early church, I am in no wise appealing to it as an authority on doctrine. Like Mr. Burch I believe in sola scriptura and tota scriptura, and I stand by my original statement that the Scriptures “ooze and bleed” the doctrine of the Trinity. The Scriptures alone are sufficient to prove their own teachings, and only prooftexts without context resulting in pretexts are what the anti-trinitarians possess in their favor. However, as we look at early church history, we could pose our own “difficult question” to the anti-trinitarians: “Why does church history prove beyond all repute that your position cannot possibly be true?”

No doubt, the first few centuries of Christianity were riddled with unimaginable torture and bloodshed at the hand of the pagan Roman empire. The irony of it all was not that the Roman officials forbade the open worship of Yahweh God or of the message of Jesus Christ. The Roman government was very tolerant of other religious expression–with one caveat! Anyone could worship any god, provided he acknowledge Caesar Kurios (Caesar is Lord) and not deny the existence of the Roman pantheon. The words “Caesar Kurios” did not merely acknowledge Caesar as one with kingly authority, but the kind of authority only due to deity. Christian monotheists could not be ecumenical in matters of the divine being, and, consequently, they faced the tribulations that Jesus declared His disciples would face. To know the faith of these martyrs and their understanding of God and Jesus Christ is to know undying commitment to truth. We twenty-first century believers have much to learn from the steadfast faith of the early martyrs and church fathers; therefore, we should carefully observe what they have to say about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The first century–from the horse’s mouth

Apart from the New Testament, several early witnesses to the practice and faith of Christianity shed light on the primary understanding of who Jesus Christ is and how His advent in history unveiled the fullness of the truth of God and the fulfillment of prophecy. Teachings for the church and epistles from those who knew the apostles in person demonstrate how they understood what the apostles believed as they wrote inspired Scripture. One of the earliest extra-Biblical documents is known as the Didache.

Didache

The Didache or “teaching” was a manual for discipleship written between A.D 65-80 that quotes a lot of Old and New Testament scriptures. As a side note, for those involved in the “abortion” debate, this early testament of the teachings of the ten commandments, Jesus, and the apostles declares, “thou shalt not kill a child by abortion, neither shalt thou slay it when born.”[1] (2:2)

A relevant passage for our discussion of the identity of Jesus Christ is found in chapter 7, which is about the ordinance of baptism. The Didache declares, “But concerning baptism, thus baptize ye: having first recited all these precepts, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in running water.”[2] (7:1) After the teachings advise the ideal situation for water, if there is not access to enough water for an immersive situation, the baptizer should “pour water three times on the head, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”[3] (7:3) This reference to baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is an obvious reference to Matthew 28:19.

Some anti-trinitarian scholars believe that the phrase is a later emendation to the text after the trinitarian doctrine was allegedly developed; but the weight of ancient witnesses argues against this speculation. The Didache quotes the phrase twice and emphasizes the significance of the “three-ness” of the singular name in this “formula” by pouring on the head three times–once for the authority of each Person of God. Although the topic of the authenticity of the triune phrase in Matthew 28:19 could be addressed in greater detail, suffice to say that Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hyppolitus, and Victorinus all cited the triune rendering before the Council of Nicea. If we are to believe that all their writings have been altered since the Council by Constantine, we have no better defense against unprovable conspiracy theories than Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code would afford us.

Clement of Rome (?-ca. A.D. 100)

Clement of Rome, possibly a disciple of Peter, wrote to the Corinthian church a letter rich with references to Old Testament saints as examples for faithful living. He also quotes the words of Jesus, Paul, and Peter. Although a neo-Arian may overlook the rich proofs of the Trinity in this early post-canonical epistle, They are there for the Spirit-led believer who is informed of the doctrine of the Trinity.
In 1 Clement 13:1, he attributed the words of Jeremiah 9:23-24 as something that “the Holy Spirit saith,”[4] then proceeded to remind the reader of what Jesus said in the next verse by quoting Luke 6:38,[5] making the Holy Spirit and Jesus both distinct persons. Both speak in a way that is parallel, and both are distinguished from the Father. Thus, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons, but are all divine.
In 1 Clement 16:1, he says that Christ is with the lowly but resists those who exalt themselves, echoing Psalm 138:6, James 4:6, and 1 Peter 5:5 that speak of God.[6] Why should there be any note of comfort with Christ being with the humble if we also know from hundreds of years before that Yahweh God Himself is with the humble?
Next, in 16:3-16, Clement quotes two Messianic texts–Isaiah 53:1-11 and Psalm 22:6-8–both of which render Yahweh as kurios in the Greek.[7] Immediately afterwards, Clement refers to Jesus as kurios when he says “for, if the Lord [kurios] so humbled himself, what shall we do who have through his mercy come under the yoke of his grace?”[8] (1 Clement 16:17b). Later, Clement exercises the same freedom in 50:5-6 when he quotes Psalm 32:1-2 where David says, “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord [kurios] imputeth not sin,”[9] then says “This blessedness cometh unto them who are elect by God, through Jesus Christ our Lord [kurios].”[10]
Who should we fear? Isaiah 8:13 says to let Yahweh alone be our fear and dread. In 1 Clement 21:6 we are to “have respect to [fear] our Lord Jesus Christ” and instruct our youthful students “in the discipline of the fear of God.”[11]
In 1 Clement 32:2, he is careful to let the reader know that Jesus did not find origin in conception like other descendants of Jacob when he says, “For from Jacob came the priests and all the Levites that serve the altar of God. From him came our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh; from him came the kings and rulers and governors of the tribe of Judah.”[12]
Clement shows an orthodox understanding of justification by faith when he says in 32:4: “And we who through his will have been called in Christ Jesus are justified, not by ourselves, or through our wisdom or understanding or godliness, or the works that we have done in holiness of heart, but by faith, by which all men from the beginning have been justified by Almighty God, to whom be glory world without end. Amen.”[13]
Like the trinitarian texts of the Bible, Clement presents his own mentions of all three Persons disinctly:

  • “by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and having been confirmed by the word of God, with the full persuasion of the Holy Spirit”[14] (42:3)
  • “Have we not one God and one Christ? Is not the Spirit of grace, which was poured out upon us, one? Is not our calling one in Christ?”[15] (46:6)
  • “For as God liveth, and as the Lord Jesus Christ liveth, and the Holy Spirit…”[16] (58:2b)

Polycarp of Smyrna (A.D. 69-155)

Polcarp, attested by Papias as a disciple of the Apostle John and a bishop of the church at Smyrna, wrote an epistle to the Philippians. Like Clement’s first epistle, Polycarp’s quotes the Old Testament, Jesus, Peter, and Paul.
As an early post-apostolic witness to the teachings of the Scriptures, Polycarp declares: “Now may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the eternal High-priest Himself the Son of God Jesus Christ, build you up in faith and truth, and in all gentleness and in all avoidance of wrath and in forbearance and long suffering and in patient endurance and in purity; and may He grant unto you a lot and portion among His saints, and to us with you, and to all that are under heaven, who shall believe on our Lord and God Jesus Christ and on His Father that raised him from the dead.”[17] (12:2)
As Clement before, the word kurios (“Lord”) loosely applies both to God and to Jesus. Referring to Jesus, Polycarp notes that the apostles “are in their due place in the presence of the Lord, with whom also they suffered”[18] (9:2). He then encourages the reader to “follow the example of the Lord” and be “in the gentleness of the Lord”[19] (10:1). Continuing the flow of thought, Polycarp advises that through humility and good works, “ye may receive praise and the Lord may not be blasphemed in you. But woe to him through whom the name of the Lord be blasphemed.”[20] (10:2-3)
An ancient letter chronicling “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” says that he was martyred “in the reign of the Eternal King Jesus Christ. To whom be the glory, honor, greatness, and eternal throne, from generation to generation. Amen.”[21] (Martyrdom 21:1) The recipients of this letter are encouraged to “while you walk according to the doctrine of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; with whom be glory to God the Father and the Holy Spirit[22] (Martyrdom 22:1). In the epilogue of “The Marytrdom” one Pionius concludes: “…to whom [Jesus Christ] be glory with the Father and Holy Spirit…”[23] (Martyrdom 22:3). During the time of Polycarp as Christians were martyred, the Roman authorities called the Christians “atheists” because they refused to acknowledge the existence of the Roman gods. All Polycarp had to do to avoid his brutal execution was to face the Christians and declare “Away with the atheists!” However, with a bit of bold, ironic humor, Polycarp motioned his hand across the coliseum full of critics and uttered those words in their direction.
Polycarp and Ignatius of Antioch, both as fellow disciples of John, maintained a close mutual relationship; thus, they would have affirmed each other as true saints in the faith. Polycarp refers to “the letters of Ignatius” that Polycarp attached to his own letter as he sent it to the Philippians[24] (13:2). We will see that these letters of Ignatius very much express the deity of Christ.

Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 35-50 – 98-108)

Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, along with Polycarp, was likely a student of the Apostle John. If one wishes to argue that Polycarp was not clear about the deity of Christ in his short epistle to the Philippians, no doubt should entail what he actually believed where his tight relationship with Ignatius makes evident in the epistles of Ignatius.
One of the most famous epistles of Ignatius is his epistle to the Ephesians, where a high Christology is indisuptable:

  • “…by the will of the Father and of Jesus Christ our God…”[25] (0:0) [see Titus 2:18 and 2 Peter 1:1]
  • “…and having your hearts kindled in the blood of God…”[26] (1:1) [see Acts 20:28 where God has blood in the incarnation of Jesus Christ]
  • “…for Jesus Christ also, our inseparable life, is the mind of the Father…”[27] (3:2)
  • “There is one only physician, of flesh and of spirit, generate and ingenerate, God in man, true Life in death, Son of Mary and Son of God, first passible and then impassible, Jesus Christ our Lord.”[28] (7:2)
  • “For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived in the womb by Mary according to a dispensation, of the seed of David but also of the Holy Ghost…”[29] (18:2)
  • “…when God appeared in the likeness of man…”[30] (19:3)

Irenaeus of Lyons (?? – c. A.D. 202)

Irenaeus, bishop of what is now Lyons of France, was a disciple of Polycarp, who, as we saw earlier, was a disciple of the Apostle John. In no contradiction to the teachings of John, Irenaeus as a prolific and scholarly apologist defended the truth of John’s doctrine against the gnostics of the second century.
In his polemic Against Heresies (book 1), Irenaeus begins by observing the distortion of Scriptural truth proposed by the gnostics in their teaching of the “pleroma” of deity. The Apostle Paul addressed the “proto-gnostic” form of this heresy in Colossians 2:9 when he said that the plerōma tes theotetos (“fullness of deity”) is dwelling in Jesus Christ sōmatikōs (“bodily”). We learn from Irenaeus that the gnostics taught that there were thirty “aeons” in this “pleroma”[31] (Heresies 1:3), beginning with the perfect Propator[32] (Heresies 2:1) and ending with the unfortunate creation of matter, which is imperfect and evil[33] (Heresies 2:3). Jesus, according to the gnostics, was one of the demiurges (lesser aeons) and taught the mysteries of the aeons in His parables[34] (Heresies 3:1).
In contradistinction to the gnostic fantasies, Irenaeus defended the orthodoxy of his grandfather in the faith when he declared:

For when John, proclaiming one God, the Almighty, and one Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten, by whom all things were made, declares that this was the Son of God, this the Only-begotten, this the Former of all things, this the true Light who enlighteneth every man this the Creator of the world, this He that came to His own, this He that became flesh and dwelt among us…[35]
— Irenaeus, Against Heresies book 1, 9:2

Irenaeus declares that the doctrine of the church “dispersed throughout the whole world” acknowledges that everyone will bow the knee (Php 2:10-11) to “Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King”[36] (Heresies 10:1).
An Armenian manuscript from Irenaeus on “Proof of the Apostolic Preaching” was discovered in 1904 and translated into German and English. This epistle is rich in Trinitarian language, constantly referencing the economical Trinity of the unity and the roles of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Referring to the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19, Irenaeus declared:

For as many as carry (in them) the Spirit of God are led to the Word, that is to the Son; and the Son brings them to the Father; and the Father causes them to possess incorruption. Without the Spirit it is not possible to behold the Word of God, nor without the Son can any draw near to the Father for the knowledge of the Father is the Son, and the knowledge of the Son of God is through the Holy Spirit; and, according to the good pleasure of the Father, the Son ministers and dispenses the Spirit to whomsoever the Father wills and as He wills.[37]
— Irenaeus, Apostolic Preaching

Lest one believe that the Nicene Creed (which came about 150 years after this point in history) was novel in explicitly trinitarian language, we observe these brazen words:

Therefore the Father is Lord, and the Son is Lord, and the Father is God and the Son is God; for He who is born of God is God. And thus God is shown to be one according to the essence of His being and power; but at the same time, as the administrator of the economy of our redemption, He is both Father and Son: since the Father of all is invisible and inaccessible to creatures, it is through the Son that those who are to approach God must have access to the Father. Moreover David speaks clearly and most manifestly of the Father and the Son, as follows: Thy
throne, God, is for ever and ever; Thou hast loved justice, and hated iniquity, therefore God hath anointed Thee with the oil of gladness above Thy fellows. For this means that the Son, being God, receives from the Father, that is, from God, the throne of the everlasting kingdom, and the oil of anointing above His fellows. And “oil of anointing” is the Spirit, through whom He is the Anointed, and “His fellows” are the prophets and the just and the apostles, and all who receive fellowship of His kingdom, that is, His disciples.[38]
— Irenaeus, Apostolic Preaching

Athenagoras of Athens (c. A.D. 133 – c. 190)

One of the apologists of the early church of whom little is personally known is Athenagorus of Athens. He was a Greek philosopher who converted to Christianity in a futile attempt to refute it (much like Simon Greenleaf of Harvard). In his letter A Plea for the Christians, Athenagorus argues why Christians do not logically fit the label “atheists” as the Romans attributed to them.
In his defense against the charge of atheism, Athenagorus writes: “But, since our doctrine acknowledges one God, the Maker of this universe, who is Himself 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…”[39] (Plea, chap. 4). Here, Athenagorus distinguishes the creator from the creation. There is only one God, yet this one God made all things “through the Logos,” which we know “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Joh 1:14). Therefore, according to Athenagorus’ logic, “the Logos” cannot be created. Athenagorus later argues, “neither are we atheists who acknowledge and firmly hold that He is God who has framed all things by the Logos, and holds them in being by His Spirit”[40] (Plea, chap. 6).
Continuing to define the nature of God in the Christian faith against the Greek philosophers, Athenagorus states, “but God is uncreated, and, impassible, and indivisible—[and] does not, therefore, consist of parts”[41] (Plea, chap. 8). Therefore, if God is an “indivisible” unity and distinguished from creation, the Logos who “became flesh” and the Spirit must share the same essence and be eternal. After explaining the relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, that all are eternal, Athenagorus sums up: “Who, then, would not be astonished to hear men who speak of God the Father, and of God the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and who declare both their power in union and their distinction in order, called atheists?”[42] (Plea, chap. 10) Later, in very trinitarian language, Athenagorus states that Christians “know God and His Logos, what is the oneness of the Son with the Father, what the communion of the Father with the Son, what is the Spirit, what is the unity of these three, the Spirit, the Son, the Father, and their distinction in unity…”[43] (Plea 12:5)

Conclusion of first and second century conclusions

We could glean much more nuggets from Athenagorus as he defended the Christian faith from the false charges of pagan religions that died almost two millennia ago. We could have looked at the writings of other early church fathers as they expressed the ante-Nicene faith of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yet, in all this, we are still within generations of the original Apostles and the nearness of their experiential doctrine. At this point in history, there have been no major Christological strifes arising from within the ranks of the church itself. Challenges from gnosticism and Greek philosophy led the early apologists to explain Christian monotheism and the revelation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to enemies of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Yet, the Adversary, the Devil, learned that persecution could not destroy Christ’s church. Satan’s next strategy was to attempt to divide the church from within, just as the apostles warned (Act 20:29; 2Pe 2:1). In the next part we will see the early Christological heresies and how the Holy Spirit led the church to weed out impostors.

  1. Peter Kirby, “Didache,” trans. Charles H. Hoole, Early Christian Writings, 2016, accessed April 18, 2016, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-hoole.html.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Peter Kirby, “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians,” trans. Charles H. Hoole, Early Christian Writings, 2016, accessed April 18, 2016, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/1clement-hoole.html.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Peter Kirby, “The Epistle of Polycarp,” trans. J. B. Lightfoot, Early Christian Writings, 2016, accessed April 18, 2016, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/polycarp-lightfoot.html.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Peter Kirby, “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” trans. J. B. Lightfoot, Early Christian Writings, 2016, accessed April 18, 2016, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/martyrdompolycarp-lightfoot.html.
  22. Peter Kirby, “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” trans. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Early Christian Writings, 2016, accessed April 18, 2016, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/martyrdompolycarp-roberts.html.
  23. Peter Kirby, “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” trans. Charles H. Hoole, Early Christian Writings, 2016, accessed April 18, 2016, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/martyrdompolycarp-hoole.html.
  24. Kirby, “The Epistle of Polycarp.”
  25. Peter Kirby, “Ignatius to the Ephesians,” trans. J. B. Lightfoot, Early Christian Writings, 2016, accessed April 18, 2016, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/ignatius-ephesians-lightfoot.html.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Peter Kirby, “Against Heresies: Book 1,” trans. Alexander Roberts, Early Christian Writings, 2016, accessed April 18, 2016, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/irenaeus-book1.html.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Peter Kirby, “A Discourse in Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching,” trans. Armitage Robinson, Early Christian Writings, 2016, accessed April 18, 2016, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/demonstrationapostolic.html.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Peter Kirby, “A Plea for the Christians,” trans. B. P. Pratten, Early Christian Writings, 2016, accessed April 18, 2016, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/athenagoras-plea.html.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Ibid.

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