God is Trinity. So What? (Part 2: A Brief History)

“The Trinity” by Andrei Rublev (15th century)

What is Doctrine and Do I Need it?

“Doctrine” is simply the church’s attempt to organize its understanding of God’s revelation of himself. Good doctrine is important, because whether we can articulate it or not, what we believe about God is our theology, and our theology determines how we relate to and interact with him. However, it’s important to note that as essential as good doctrine is, knowing sound theology does not necessarily equate to knowing God. Knowing God (and being known by him) only comes by grace through faith in the resurrected Jesus Christ.

The early church wrestled through the doctrine of the Trinity precisely because what we think about God affects how we understand and live out our salvation and discipleship. Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century) said that “Theology reaches maturity by additions,” meaning that theology often develops in stages as the church grapples, debates, and clarifies its understanding of God’s revelation.[ii] Nowhere is this truer than in the doctrine of the Trinity.

Trinity in the Bible

The word “Trinity” is not mentioned in the Bible. However, this does not mean that the doctrine itself is unbiblical. One of the wonderful mysteries of the Old Testament is God’s revelation of himself. On the one hand, Deuteronomy 6:4 explicitly states, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” On the other hand, at Creation God says, “Let us make man in our image” (Gen 1:26). Our one God uses plural pronouns in describing himself (cf. Isa 6:8). Therefore, in the Old Testament we have the seeds of a Trinitarian doctrine.

There is no explicit doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament,[iii] but biblical authors certainly thought and wrote in Trinitarian forms.[iv] For example, Jesus (Mat 28:19; John 14:26; 15:26), Paul (2 Cor 13:13), and Peter (1 Pet 1:2) all use Trinitarian language referencing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[v] Further, the conception of Jesus (Luke 1:35), the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:9-11), Galatians 4:4ff, and Ephesians 4:4ff all demonstrate the Trinitarian action of God (all three Persons are involved).

Trinity in the Early Church

The early church spent considerable thought, writings, and councils hammering out the doctrine of the Trinity, often in response to heresy, which we shall look at later in the section “Common Mistakes and Misunderstandings.” There are more names and details mentioned in the endnotes below, but the doctrine of the Trinity more or less developed in two phases.[vi] First, the early church clarified the relationship between the Father and the Son, and they concluded at the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) that Jesus is of one essence and substance with the Father. In other words, they confirmed the deity of Christ.[vii] The Nicene Creed was also Trinitarian in that it included the Holy Spirit, but not with much definition.

This lack of firm definition regarding the Holy Spirit led to the second phase of the doctrine’s development, when the church began to debate about the nature of the Holy Spirit. Church leaders met again at the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381), where they amended the Nicene Creed and delineated, among other things, the deity of the Holy Spirit and his one essence with the Father and the Son. As a result, the church had a defined view of the Trinity: the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God – they are one God who eternally exists in three Persons. We’ll explore this more next in the “Summary of the Doctrine.” Other controversies about and great thinkers of the doctrine of the Trinity arose throughout history, but by in large, the orthodox understanding of the Trinity was cemented by the end of the 4th century.[viii]


For a more in-depth history see either GW Bromiley (Gen Ed), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Eerdman’s, 1988), volume 4, p.914-921; or Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Blackwell Publishing, 2007), p.248-252

[ii] Wilken, p.101

[iii] Karl Barth said: “The bible lacks the express declaration that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are of equal essence and therefore in an equal sense God himself.” Quoted by Colin Brown (Gen Ed), New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Zondervan, 1986), volume 2, p.86.

[iv] See ibid volume 2, p.516. See also Daryl Johnson, Experiencing the Trinity (Regent College Publishing, 2002), p.27. Biblical authors were expressing their understanding of the one true God, as the Hebrew Scriptures stated, and their experience of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

[v] See also Rom 8:9-11; 1 Cor 6:13-20; Eph 2:19-22; 3:14-16; 1 Thess 1:2-10; Tit 3:4-6

[vi] Ignatius (1st century) used the Trinitarian formula, “in the Son and the Father and the Spirit.” Theophilus of Antioch (2nd century) was the first to use the Greek word for Trinity, though he used it as reference to Father, Word, and Wisdom. Tertullian (3rd century) was the first to use the Latin term, and the first to write of God as “three Persons, one Substance.” This understanding was later furthered by the Cappadocian Fathers, who were Basil the Great (4th century), Gregory of Nyssa (4th century), and Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century).

The early church owes a great debt to Athanasius (4th century) for its orthodox understanding of the Trinity. Athanasius vehemently argued that the deity of Christ was necessary for true salvation and the deity of the Holy Spirit was essential for our community with God. The church agreed with Athanasius, and the Trinitarian creed commonly called the Athanasian Creed (although Athanasius likely did not compose it) bears his name.

See Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Eerdman’s, 1994), p.58-60. See also Henry Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Eerdman’s, 1979), p.90. See also the Wikipedia article “Tertullian,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tertullian, accessed 2012-02-08.

[vii] The two natures of Christ (fully human, fully divine) were clarified over the next several councils, but this is a topic for another post!

[viii] The most notable controversy was the “filoque” controversy that led, in part, to the Great Schism between Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Roman) Christianity in 1054. The most eminent thinkers were arguably the Cappadocian Fathers (4th century) and Augustine (4th-5th century).


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