Early Witnesses to the Trinity in Christian Thought

St. Justin Martyr was a Christian apologist, born at Flavia Neapolis around A.D. 100 and a convert to Christianity about A.D. 130.  He is known as the first philosopher apologist, well instructed in the various Greek philosophical systems, as he switched from one school to another, always seeking the truth and never satisfied, until he came to know Truth Himself in the Person of Christ.

Among the mostly pagan Romans, he was therefore often accused of atheism.  No doubt one sees the similarities of St. Justin to Socrates, who, by proclaiming one true great god, was considered and tried as an atheist for now professing the gods of his common people.

Justin answers these charges thus:

“In our case, who pledge ourselves to do no wickedness, nor to hold these atheistic opinions, you do not examine the charges made against us; but, yielding to unreasoning passion, and to the instigation of evil demons, you punish us without consideration or judgment…And when Socrates endeavoured, by true reason and examination, to bring these things to light, and deliver men from the demons, then the demons themselves, by means of men who rejoiced in iniquity, compassed his death, as an atheist and a profane person, on the charge that he was introducing new divinities; and in our case they display a similar activity…Hence are we called atheists. And we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God.” (First Apology, Ch.5 and 6)

Turning our attention to St. Justin’s contribution to Trinitarian thought, we find that it is scarcely developed, yet it is there.  The focus is primarily on the equality of the Son and the Holy Spirit with the Father, but most especially of the Son. In interpreting the Old Testament texts, for example,

“The Jews, accordingly, being throughout of opinion that it was the Father of the universe who spoke to Moses, though He who spoke to him was indeed the Son of God, who is called both Angel and Apostle, are justly charged, both by the Spirit of prophecy and by Christ Himself, with knowing neither the Father nor the Son. For they who affirm that the Son is the Father, are proved neither to have become acquainted with the Father, nor to know that the Father of the universe has a Son; who also, being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God.” (First Apology, Ch. 63)

Turning to his work Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, we see strong evidence of the beginnings of the “God from God, light from light” understanding that we are familiar with from the Creeds.

“I shall give you another testimony, my friends, from the Scriptures, that God begot before all creatures a Beginning, [who was] a certain rational power [proceeding] from Himself, who is called by the Holy Spirit, now the Glory of the Lord, now the Son, again Wisdom, again an Angel, then God, and then Lord and Logos; and on another occasion He calls Himself Captain, when He appeared in human form to Joshua the son of Nave (Nun). For He can be called by all those names, since He ministers to the Father’s will, and since He was begotten of the Father by an act of will; just as we see happening among ourselves: for when we give out some word, we beget the word; yet not by abscission, so as to lessen the word [which remains] in us, when we give it out: and just as we see also happening in the case of a fire, which is not lessened when it has kindled [another], but remains the same; and that which has been kindled by it likewise appears to exist by itself, not diminishing that from which it was kindled” (Dialogue, Ch 61).

Of course, we must see this for what it is; the beginning of speculative thought on the Trinity. The orthodox teaching today, of course, would not use such terms as to lead one to the false opinion that to be begotten means being somehow created.  The Son and the Spirit are co-eternal with the Father, something that is unclear at best in St. Justin. Likewise, the Son is not rightly said to be “begotten of the Father by an act of will.” This could make one think that the Father could have chosen not to will the begetting of the Son, which is false.  The Trinity is the essence of the one God, and just as necessary as the necessary being of God as first cause and existence itself. Nevertheless, St. Justin clearly demonstrates the early thought of the Church in its faith in one God and three Persons and a struggle to prayerfully understand it, explain it, and defend it.

Irenaeus of Lyon was Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, (now Lyon, France) during the last part of the second century. He was an early church father and apologist, and his writings were formative in the early development of Christian theology. His writings Against Heresies are a wealth of early apologetics (defense of the faith) and of the thought of the early Church.

“The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father to gather all things in one,  and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess (Against Heresies, BK I, Ch. 10)

St. Irenaeus writes about the heresy of Marcion and refutes it in great detail.  For our purposes, I will quote only a few lines to give an outline.

Marcion of Pontus…mutilates the Gospel which is according to Luke, removing all that is written respecting the generation of the Lord, and setting aside a great deal of the teaching of the Lord, in which the Lord is recorded as most dearly confessing that the Maker of this universe is His Father…” (Against Heresies, I, 27)

But correct are those who “carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent.” (Against Heresies, III, 3)

Deep reflection on the truths of the Trinity would take a back seat to the attacks on the Church that would soon follow on the true nature of Jesus the Incarnate Word of God.  But once these were more or less resolved, the Church would turn her attention again to more speculative thought on the inner life and metaphysical reality of the Triune God.  However, as all things that involve such things as transcend our finite minds, St. Irenaeus gives warning:

“If any one, therefore, says to us, How then was the Son produced by the Father? we reply to him, that no man understands that production, or generation, or calling, or revelation, or by whatever name one may describe His generation, which is in fact altogether indescribable. Neither Valentinus, nor Marcion, nor Saturninus, nor Basilides, nor angels, nor archangels, nor principalities, nor powers [possess this knowledge], but the Father only who begot, and the Son who was begotten. Since therefore His generation is unspeakable, those who strive to set forth generations and productions cannot be in their right mind, inasmuch as they undertake to describe things which are indescribable.” (Against Heresies, II, 28)


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