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The Doctrine of the Trinity in the Early Church by William Cunningham

The Attributes of God and the Doctrine of God

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The Doctrine of the Trinity in the Early Church by William Cunningham


When the Arian controversy arose in the fourth century, both parties claimed, in support of their opposite doctrines, the testimony of the earlier church, though the orthodox party advanced this claim with greater confidence and greater truth. And in more modern times, whenever the subject of the Trinity has become matter of controversial discussion, the question has been agitated as to what were the views that generally prevailed in the early church, or during the first three centuries, regarding it. There seems to have been something like a general feeling upon the part of theological writers, even those who in general were not disposed to attach much weight to catholic consent, that it was a matter of more importance to ascertain what were the views generally held by the primitive church on the subject of the Trinity, than upon any of the other topics which we have already considered, —a sort of general admission that the testimony of the early church would have rather more of a corroborative, though, of course, not probative, influence in support of the side which might enjoy the benefit of it, in this than in most other controversies which have been agitated. And this feeling or impression is perhaps not altogether destitute of some foundation in reason.

The doctrine of the Trinity— i.e., the doctrine that there are three distinct persons possessing one and the same divine nature and essence— is one which is altogether of so peculiar a character, that we cannot help having an impression that it is in the highest degree improbable, —first, that if it had been taught by the apostles, it would have soon disappeared from the general teaching of the church; or, secondly, that if it had not been taught by them, it would have been afterwards devised or invented by men, and would have so widely and extensively prevailed. On the ground of the first of these positions, we concede to the anti-Trinitarians, that if it should turn out that the doctrine of the Trinity was not generally believed by the early church, this would afford a certain degree of presumption, though of course no proof, that it was not taught by the apostles; while, on the ground of the second of these positions, we call upon them to admit, that a proof of its general prevalence in the early church affords at least an equally strong presumption in favour of its apostolic origin. None of the defenders of the doctrine of the Trinity imagine that men can be reasonably expected to embrace this doctrine, —which, from its very nature, must be one of pure revelation, —unless it can be clearly established from Scripture; and they are all persuaded that if the divine authority of Scripture be admitted, and if it be further admitted that the authors of the books of Scripture understood what they wrote, and meant to write so as to be understood by others, the doctrine of the Trinity can be fully established. But there is nothing unreasonable in the general idea that the prevalence in the early church of a doctrine of so very peculiar a character— so very unlikely to have been invented by man— should be regarded as affording some presumption in favour of the soundness of the conclusions that may have been deduced from Scripture. At the same time, it is true, as might have been expected, that most of those who have believed that the doctrine of the Trinity is taught in Scripture, have also believed that the testimony of the early church is in favour of it; while, on the other hand, most of those who have succeeded in persuading themselves that the doctrine of the Trinity is not taught in Scripture, have been equally successful in reaching the conclusion that it was not generally adopted by the early church.

Some collateral or adventitious influences, indeed, have occasionally been brought to bear upon the investigation of this subject— of the faith of the early church concerning the Trinity— which have broken in upon the regularity with which theologians have ranged themselves upon the one side or the other, according to their own personal convictions as to the truth of the doctrine itself. More especially, the discussion of the question of the faith of the early church on the subject .of the Trinity has been brought to bear upon the more general question of the respect due to the authority of the fathers, and even upon the subordinate question of the comparative respect due to the testimony of the ante-Nicene and the post-Nicene fathers; and men seem to have been somewhat influenced in deciding upon the Trinitarian-ism or anti-Trinitarianism of the early church by the views which they felt called upon to maintain in regard to the general question. As we cannot enter into a minute examination of the precise meaning of passages in early writers, very often obscure and confused; and as, after all, the subject is now important, chiefly, perhaps, from the prominent place it occupies in modern theological literature, I may illustrate the statement about the cross currents of influences in affecting men’s opinions upon the subject by one or two examples.

Dionysius Petavius, or Denis Petan, whom I have already had occasion to mention, a very learned and able Roman Catholic writer in the early part of the seventeenth century, and profoundly versant in patristic literature, has given it as his deliberate opinion, that a clear and decided testimony against Arianism cannot be produced from the existing remains of the first three centuries; nay, that many of the fathers of that period were no better than Arians, and that the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity — which, like all Romanists, he professed to believe— was first brought out fully and clearly at the time of the Council of Nice. And this declaration of Petavius has been since boasted of by anti-Trinitarians as a concession wrested from a very learned adversary by the pure force of truth and evidence. Bishop Bull, the most eminent among the champions of the orthodoxy of the ante-Nicene fathers, after expressing his surprise and amazement that a man like Petavius— vir magnus atque omnigena literatura instructissimus, as he calls him— should have propounded such an opinion, intimates his conviction that he was not influenced in adopting it by a pure love of truth, but subdolo aliquo consilio, and then proceeds to explain how this view was fitted to serve the purposes of Popery, in this way: First, its tendency was to elevate the authority of the post-Nicene fathers— whom Petavius and all others acknowledge to have been generally Trinitarians— above that of the ante-Nicene fathers, and thus to afford to the Papists a pretence for shifting their general controversy with Protestants, so far as antiquity is concerned, from the first three centuries, where they can find little to support them, to the fourth and fifth centuries, where there is a good deal to countenance them; and, Secondly, the establishment of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity by the Council of Nice, without its having much support from previous tradition, and its general adoption thereafter by the church, give some countenance to the principle, which has been advocated by some Popish writers, of the right of general councils to form and establish new articles of faith. The word of God and the history of the church make it manifest that there is no great improbability of finding, and no great lack of reasonable charity in expecting to find, abundance of fraud and iniquity in the defenders of Popery. But I think it must be admitted in fairness, that in this case the suspicions of Bishop Bull are farfetched and unreasonable, and that there is no sufficient reason to doubt that Petavius may have believed what he said about the Arianism of many of the ante-Nicene fathers, —the testimony of the primitive church not being quite so clear as to exclude the possibility of an honest difference of opinion. Romish writers have not, in general, adopted this notion of Petavius; but, on the contrary, have been accustomed to adduce the doctrine of the divinity of Christ, and the divinity and personality of the Holy Spirit, as instances of the obscurity and imperfection of Scripture, — instances of doctrines very obscurely and imperfectly revealed in the word of God, but clearly established by the testimony of the early church, supplying the deficiencies of Scripture. This also was the ground generally taken upon the subject by the Tractarians; and hence the real amount and worth of the testimony of antiquity to the doctrine of the Trinity, or rather the comparative clearness of the scriptural and the ecclesiastical testimony upon the subject, has come to be involved in recent controversies. Accordingly, Goode, in his Divine Rule of Faith and Practice, makes it his business to show that the scriptural testimony in favour of the doctrine is clear, full, and explicit, and that the ecclesiastical testimony— which the Tractarians, following; the Papists, had preferred, in point of clearness, to the scriptural proof— is confused and contradictory; and in the course of his discussion of this topic, he charges Bishop Bull with forcing some of the declarations of the ante-Nicene fathers into an orthodox sense, and censures him for his censure upon Petavius.

When Bossuet published his great work upon the Variations of the Protestant Churches, Jurieu, who has written a great number of valuable works, especially upon the Popish controversy, but who was not free from a certain measure of rashness and recklessness, attacked his fundamental principle, that variation was a proof of error, by adducing the case of the doctrine of the Trinity, and bringing out the variations and inconsistencies of the testimony of the early church concerning it, of which, of course, he made the most; while Bossuet, in his reply, endeavoured to show that that testimony was uniform and consistent.

These may serve as illustrations of the way in which this subject of the faith of the primitive church, in regard to the Trinity, has been brought to bear upon other controversies, and of the way in which men’s views regarding it have been modified by their opinions upon some other points than that of the truth of the doctrine itself. Still it is, in the main, substantially true, that those who are Trinitarians upon scriptural grounds, have generally regarded the testimony of the primitive church as corroborating their conclusions from Scripture; while those who were anti-Trinitarians on alleged scriptural grounds, have taken an opposite view of the bearing and import of the testimony of antiquity. It appears to me that the truth upon this point may be comprehended in these two positions: First, the testimony of i the church of the first three centuries in favour of the doctrine concerning the Trinity, which has ever since been held by the great body of professing Christians, is sufficiently clear and full to afford some corroboration to the conviction based upon Scripture, that it was taught by the apostles; and, Secondly, that it is not so clear and full as to be of any real service to those who would employ it for depreciating the clearness and sufficiency of Scripture; and that, on the contrary, there are much greater difficulties and drawbacks connected with it than have ever been proved to attach to the Scriptural testimony. Let us briefly illustrate these positions.

The whole host of the opponents of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, assuming, though unwarrantably, the general designation of Unitarians, make common cause in discussing this question. When they profess to be interpreting Scripture, they divide into different ranks, and disagree as much with each other as they do with Trinitarians. But in discussing the testimony of antiquity they usually combine their forces, and seem all equally anxious to bring forward anything that may be fitted to afford a proof or a presumption that the early church did not generally hold the doctrine of the Trinity. This is scarcely fair, though perhaps it is not worth contending about. The three great divisions of the anti-Trinitarians— for this, and not Unitarians, is their proper generic designation— are the Sabellians, the Socinians, and the Arians. Sabellianism is now commonly used as a general designation for the doctrine of those who, admitting that a distinction in the Godhead is set forth in Scripture, deny that this distinction is a personal one, and maintain it to be merely nominal or modal;— or, in other words, who assert that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are just three different names for one and the same person, viewed under different aspects or relations. Now, it is certain that some notion of this sort was broached during the first three centuries by Praxeas, Noetus, and Sabellius, but it is not alleged that it ever had a general prevalence in the early church; in other words, it is not alleged that the testimony of the early church is in favour of Sabellianism. There never has been any considerable body of men, either in ancient or in modern times, who professed what are called Sabellian principles. There have, indeed, been occasionally individual theologians, who, while professing to hold the orthodox and generally received doctrine of the Trinity, have given such explanations of the distinction in the Godhead, or rather have explained it so much away, as to subject themselves to the charge from other orthodox divines of advocating Sabellianism, and who may perhaps have afforded some ground for the suspicion that they virtually denied or explained away a true and real distinction of persons; just as there have occasionally been instances of theologians— orthodox, or intending to be so— who seem to have gone into the opposite extreme, and have explained the distinction in the Godhead in such a way as to afford some plausible grounds for charging them with Tritheism, —i.e., with maintaining, not as the Scripture teaches, and as the great body of professing Christians have generally held, that there are three persons in the unity of the Godhead, possessing one and the same nature, essence, and substance, but that there are three Gods. Thus, about a century and a half ago, some discussions took place upon this subject in England, in which, on the one hand, Dr Wallis and Dr South were charged with having taught Sabellianism, or something like it; and, on the other hand, Dr William Sherlock, and Bingham, the author of the Christian Antiquities, who opposed them, were charged with having given some countenance to Tritheism. These were, however, not the formal and deliberate expressions of definite opinions held by bodies or classes of men, but rather incidental and personal aberrations, arising from attempting an unwarranted and presumptuous minuteness of explanation on a subject which, in many respects, lies beyond the limits of our comprehension. Socinians and Asians, indeed, are accustomed to allege that all but themselves must be at bottom either Sabellians or Tritheists; and to refer to the case of those who have been charged with Sabellianism as proof of the felt difficulty among Trinitarians of keeping up a profession of a real personal distinction, and to the case of those who have been charged with Tritheism, —i.e., with holding the doctrine of three Gods, as distinguished from that of three persons in one Godhead, — as bringing out openly and plainly the real nature and practical import of Trinitarianism. This, however, is manifestly assuming the whole question in dispute; while at the same time it must be admitted, that it also illustrates the injury sometimes done to truth by the rash and presumptuous speculations of its advocates. At present, however, it is enough to remark, that very few professing Christians, if any, have deliberately and intentionally advocated Sabellian principles, and that there is no pretence for alleging that the doctrine of the early church was Sabellian.

There remain the Socinians, who maintain that Christ was a mere man, who had no existence until He was born by ordinary generation of Joseph and Mary; and the Arians, who admit His pre-existence even before the creation of the world, but deny His proper divinity, His possession of the divine nature, His consubstantiality and co-eternity with the Father, —who, in short, represent Him as a creature, though prior in time and superior in rank and dignity to all other creatures. It is very manifest that these two classes of heretics, though both ranking themselves, under the general designation of Unitarians, must put a totally different meaning from each other upon many statements of Scripture; and that, indeed, in regard to those passages which bear merely upon the point of Christ’s pre-existence, without asserting His true and proper divinity (and there are some such), the Arians must differ wholly from the Socinians, and agree with the orthodox in the interpretation of them. It is equally plain, that when they appeal to the testimony of the early church, as many of both classes have confidently done, they must differ much from each other in the construction they put upon many of the statements of the fathers.

When the subject of the faith of the early church upon this point is started, we are fully entitled to put three distinct and separate questions, and to investigate each of these distinctly on its own proper ground: viz., first, Was it Socinian? secondly, Was it Arian I and, thirdly, Was it Trinitarian I The proof which has been adduced, that the faith of the early church was Socinian, — Le.} that Christ was then generally regarded as a mere man, —is of a very meagre and unsatisfactory description, and is a good deal involved in the obscure and perplexing distinction, originating in Gnostic views, made between Jesus and Christ. Indeed, it depends mainly upon the alleged Socinianism of the Ebionites, and upon the further allegation that the Ebionites were not reckoned heretics by the generality of the church. That the Ebionites were generally reckoned heretics, and, indeed, just a branch of the great Gnostic sect, has been proved by conclusive evidence, while it is by no means certain that they, heretics as they were, held the doctrine of the simple humanity of Christ. That they held that Jesus was a mere man, —some of them admitting, and others denying His miraculous conception, —is certain; but it is about equally certain that, in common with the Cerinthians and other Gnostics, they held that Jesus was not Christ till a divine energy or emanation descended upon Him at His baptism, which left Him again before His crucifixion. This notion may be fairly regarded as a virtual testimony to the general doctrine of the church, that Christ was intimately connected with the divine nature— that there was in Him some combination of the human and the divine. Eusebius expressly declares, that the first who taught that Christ was a mere man, ψὶλος ἀνθρωπος, was Theodotus, a currier, who flourished in the latter part of the second century; and we know also, that about the same time another person of the name of Artemon held similar opinions. There is some reason to think that both these men, as well as Paul of Samosata, about the middle of the third century, still retained something of the old Cerinthian or Ebionistic notion, that some supernatural, divine energy resided in the man Jesus, and, therefore, were not simple humanitarians, as they have been called, though they might be said to deny that Christ came in the flesh. But even if it be conceded that, in the full sense of the expression, as now commonly understood, they held Christ to have been a mere man, there is nothing in anything we know about them or their opinions, which affords any evidence that their opinions had any general prevalence in the early church. With respect to the personal history of Artemon we know nothing. With regard to Theodotus, we have respectable evidence that he was tempted to deny Christ by fear of persecution, and that, in order to excuse himself, he alleged that he had not denied God, but only a man; that he denied the genuineness of John’s gospel; that his arguments from Scripture were directed solely to the object of proving that Christ was a man, which of course no Trinitarian disputes; and that He was excommunicated for heresy by Victor, Bishop of Rome, with the general approbation of the church. There is no ground to believe that the views of Theodotus and Artemon were generally adopted, or had any considerable prevalence; on the contrary, they seem to have died away, until revived about the middle of the third century by Paul of Samosata, — a man noted also for that worldliness and secularity of character, which has always been a leading characteristic of Socinians, —and then condemned by a council at Antioch with the general approbation of the church. And then, on the other hand, we have the whole body of the ancient fathers declaring unanimously, as a I point quite certain in itself and universally acknowledged, the preexistence of Christ, His existence before He was born of Mary, and before the creation of the universe. The God-denying heresy, then, of Socinianism, or simple humanitarianism, has nothing of

weight to appeal to in the testimony of the ancient church, which, I on the contrary, clearly and fully confirms what is the plain doctrine of Scripture— that the Son existed with the Father before the foundation of the world.

We are now shut up to one alternative— the faith of the early church must have been either Arian or Trinitarian. Now, on this question, it should be at once conceded that there is greater difficulty in coming to a conclusion; that there are some anomalies at least, if not contradictions, in the proof, which are not very easily explained; and that, altogether, there is fairer ground for an honest difference of opinion. I have no doubt that the evidence in favour of the Trinitarianism of the early church greatly preponderates; that we are fairly entitled to hold that the doctrine of the Trinity was generally received in the church from the time of the apostles till that of the Council of Nice; and that this affords some corroboration of the correctness of the Trinitarian interpretation of Scripture. But it is just as evident, that there are not a few of the fathers, in whose writings statements occur in regard to Christ which it is not easy to reconcile with orthodox doctrine, and which, at least, afford abundant evidence that they did not always write very clearly or consistently, and of course have no claim whatever to be received as guides or standards of faith, in preference to, or even in conjunction with, the sacred Scriptures. The orthodox writers of the Nicene age admitted that, before the Arian controversy arose, and led to a more thorough sifting of the subject, some of the fathers spoke loosely and carelessly, and in such a way as sometimes to afford a handle to adversaries; while, at the same time, they strenuously contended that, practically and substantially, the testimony of most of them was in favour of orthodox views, and in opposition to the Arian heresy. This is very near the truth, and probably would not have been much disputed by Trinitarians, had not the foolish and indiscriminate admirers of the early fathers refused to admit the qualifications of the statement, and represented their testimony in behalf of the divinity of Christ as more clear and satisfactory than that which we find in Scripture.

If we assume the truth of the doctrine which has been generally. held by the church, —viz., that Jesus Christ is true and eternal God, and that He is also a man, a real partaker of human nature, —we have a key which, without difficulty or straining, unlocks the whole of the passages in the word of God which refer to this subject, and combines them in consistency and harmony; while no other doctrine fairly and fully embodies the combined import and result of the whole of what the Scripture teaches concerning the Saviour of sinners. Now, this cannot be said of the testimony of the fathers of the first three centuries, viewed in the mass; and it is here that, independently of the immeasurable distance between divine and human testimony in point of weight and authority, lies the difference between the testimony of Scripture and that of antiquity, in point of clearness and fulness. It can be proved that there is a great preponderance of evidence in the writings of the first three centuries in support of the truth that Christ is God, of the same nature and substance with the Father; but there are some statements in several of them which cannot be very easily explained by being applied either to His proper divinity or to His humanity. Bishop Bull has put forth all his learning and ingenuity in labouring to explain them in accordance with orthodox views, and has certainly made out a very plausible case; but I am not prepared to say that he has entirely succeeded. The passages here referred to are chiefly of two kinds: First, some which seem pretty plainly to deny His eternity j to ascribe an origin in time to His existence, and to represent Him as beginning to exist just before the creation of the world, immediately before what they called His προελευσις, or forthcoming from the Father to create the universe. This notion seems to correspond well with the Arian doctrine of His being the first and most exalted of created beings. Bull labours to show that those of the early fathers who have spoken in this strain, have also, in other places, ascribed to Him proper eternity, and of course should not be made inconsistent with themselves, if it can be helped; and that while they held that there was a special forthcoming of the Son from the Father, just before the creation of the world, and for the purpose of creating it, they held also that this was not regarded as properly the commencement of His existence, but that He was begotten, as the Scripture teaches, of the Father from eternity. Much plausibility is given to this solution of the difficulty by the proof which Bull adduces, that some of the Nicene or post-Nicene fathers, undoubtedly Trinitarian, such as Athanasius himself, held a sort of triple nativity of the Son, —viz., first, His eternal generation of the Father; secondly, His coming forth to create the world; thirdly, His descending in the fulness of time to assume human nature. Still there seems good ground to believe that some of the early fathers held that, while the Son might be said to have existed from eternity in the Father as His λογος, or reason, His distinct personal existence began with His coming forth to create the world.

The other class of passages which Bull seems to have felt to be still more perplexing, are those in which some of the fathers, while maintaining that it was the Son, and not the Father, who appeared to the patriarchs in the Old Testament history, assign reasons a priori for its being the Son and not the Father, which are scarcely consistent with their ascribing the same nature and perfections to them, and which seem to imply a denial of the Son’s invisibility and immensity, or incomprehensibility in a physical sense, —i.e., omnipresence. And to these passages he has little else to answer than that they are inconsistent with what the same fathers have taught in other parts of their works. This, we think, he has shown to be the case; and though he has in this way built up the general argument in support of the great preponderance of evidence from antiquity for the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, he has not shown that that testimony is throughout clear and unambiguous; but, on the contrary, has been obliged virtually to admit that it is not so. I have no doubt that Bishop Bull has succeeded in the great leading object of his work, —i.e., in defending the Nicene faith on the subject of the Trinity from the writings of the catholic fathers of the first three centuries; and I am satisfied, also, that the whole discussion which the subject has undergone since his time, has tended decidedly to confirm the view of the testimony of the early church which he advocates with so much learning and ability. But” still I must say, that a careful perusal of Bull’s work does leave the impression that he has occasionally been obliged, especially in regard to these two classes of passages to which I have referred, to have recourse to a degree of straining, and to employ an amount of ingenuity in sifting, piecing, and conjecturing, which might have modified his profound and somewhat irrational deference to the authority of the fathers.

At the same time, it ought to be remembered that these difficulties attach to the writings only of some of the fathers, and that the great body of them are full and unequivocal in asserting the proper divinity of our Saviour, as implying the consubstantiality and co-eternity of the Son with the Father, though not always with full precision of statement and perfect accuracy of language, — qualities which the history of the church seems to prove that uninspired men seldom or never even approach to, upon any topic, until after it has been subjected to a full and sifting controversial discussion. And it is to be remembered, that though Sabellianism and simple humanitarianism, or what we now call Socinianism, were somewhat discussed during the first three centuries, and were rejected by the church, Arian ism did not, during that period, undergo a discussion, and was not formally decided upon by the church, till the time of the Council of Nice. In these circumstances, occasional looseness of statement and inaccuracy of expression became of little importance as affecting the general character and weight of the evidence; and the question being put on this general issue, Was the faith of the early ante-Nicene church Arian or Trinitarian?— and being brought to be decided by a combined view of the whole materials bearing upon its settlement, —it is clear that, though there is some room for ingenious pleading, and though some difficulties may be started, which, taken by themselves, cannot perhaps be all specifically and satisfactorily removed, the practical result of the whole body of proof in the mass is, that the early fathers regarded Christ, in whom they trusted for salvation, and for whose name’s sake many of them were honoured to shed their blood, as raised infinitely above the highest of created beings, —as being, indeed, God over all, blessed for evermore.

Excerpt from his Historical Theology

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