The Council of Nicea confirmed a definition of the Trinity that had been held by the church for almost 300 years. That definition was taught and believed by all Christian churches before Nicea, though over the next couple centuries, it changed in the Roman Catholic Church and the change was passed on to the Protestant churches.
Many pages on this site are devoted to proving that the Nicene definition was the definition of the Trinity accepted by all Christian churches prior to Nicea. This page is a Scriptural defense of the early Christian and Nicene view of the Trinity.
For brevity, I left out the part about Jesus becoming incarnate, dying, rising again, etc. because those facts are not pertinent to a discussion of the Trinity. The creed issued by the bishops at Nicea was meant to be a creed, not just a definition of the Trinity, so it had to include other things than the doctrine of the Trinity.
The Nicene description of the Holy Spirit is, uh, brief, to say the least. The issue at Nicea was the relationship between the Father and the Son, not the Holy Spirit. In fact, few and confusing things are said in description of the Holy Spirit's role in the Trinity, both in Scripture and in the early Christian writings. Therefore, we will not be discussing the Holy Spirit in this article.
The creed of every local church, called a "rule of faith," was taught to converts at baptism, and it was always based on a Trinitarian formula. Tertullian referred to the rule of faith as a "somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord appointed in the Gospel," a reference to Matthew 28:19 and Jesus' command to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (De Corona 3. c. AD 210).
That formula grew over time to make sure that converts did not hold to the teachings of gnostics and other heretics. At Nicea, specific additions were made to reject the teachings of Arius, who claimed that the Son was created from nothing before all other creatures rather than born from the substance of God.
"From nothing" was more important to the council than the word "created." Christians from at least the time of Justin Martyr understood Proverbs 8:22-31 to be a reference to the Word—Jesus, the Son of God. The Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that was used by all the Greek-speaking churches in the second century, renders Prov. 8:22 as, "The Lord created me the beginning of his ways for his works" (Justin, Dialogue with Trypho. 129. c. AD 150).
The problem that the Council of Nicea, and the churches in general, had with Arius is that he taught that Jesus was created from nothing. This is not what was taught by the Christians before Arius. The church, which still knew its job was to maintain the teaching of the apostles without change (Jude 1:3), rejected all novelty as heresy. If the apostles didn't teach it; it isn't true.
What was handed down to the churches was that Jesus was created—generated, begotten, or emitted were the preferred terms—from inside God the Father "before the beginning began."
Note here that some early Christians, but not all, referred to the Holy Spirit as the Wisdom of God, while the Son they saw as the Logos (Word or Reason) of God. All of them, however, understood Proverbs 8:22-30 to apply to the participation of the Son in creation.
This is the Trinity as taught by the early churches. The Council of Nicea simply confirmed it. They did change one thing. They banned the terms "created" and "made" because Arius was using the terms to mean the Son was created from nothing like the angels, humans, and animals. This is also the reason that the council emphasized Jesus' unity in "substance," mentioning it twice in the short creed. Even the term "God from God" is on the same subject. Jesus was begotten, or "generated," from the substance or essence of God, not from nothing.
The Nicene Creed from the Codex Vaticanus, courtesy of Wikimedia
Since we've already looked at it, let's begin with Proverbs 8:22-31. I am going to quote the Septuagint, like the early Christians did, though your own Bible will not read much differently:
The early Christians claimed that they received the doctrine of the Trinity from the apostles. Once we realize that they were taught that the Son of God was generated in the beginning from the substance of the Father, and then all of creation was made through him, how could they not see in this passage an obvious reference to the Son of God in the beginning?
It seems apparent that the apostle John had the same picture. He begins his Gospel with ...
One of the reasons, besides the fact that it's accurate, that I render John 1:1c as "The Word was Divine," is because today we use terminology about God that is not scriptural. Across the board, in western Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, we like to say, "There is one God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."
The Nicene Creed, of course, says, "There is one God, the Father Almighty."
Which is scriptural?
Well, the terminology the Nicene Creed uses is pulled directly from Scripture, virtually word for word:
Courtesy of Wikimedia
So the Nicene Creed pulls directly from the apostle Paul for its wording. I think you will find that ours comes from nowhere in Scripture, but is not found in any Christian writing until at least the late fourth century. The Athanasian Creed uses that terminology, but it has never become the official creed of any church. Its origin is unknown, but despite its name, it did not come from Athanasius.
Like Scripture, the early churches do not have any problem calling Jesus God. They quote verses like Romans 9:5 and Titus 2:13 as proof that the Son can be called God. This was true because he is, as John 1:1 says, divine. He is the Son of God, and he was generated from the substance of God. God's divinity fills all things, and the Son shares that divinity with the Father.
In Scripture, however, every time the one God is mentioned, we read that the Father is the one God. The Son, being divine, is referred to as God, but he is God's only-begotten Son, not God himself.
This is why Jesus could pray, "This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and King Jesus, whom you have sent" (Jn. 17:3)
There are other passages like this:
On top of these passages Christians who read their Bibles—which, sadly, is only some of us—know that Paul starts and ends almost every one of his letters with something to the effect of "grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus the King." You will never find Paul writing, "Grace to you from the Father and King Jesus our God.
One early Christian tells us this terminology is on purpose:
I think any regular reader of the Bible will find it hard to deny that Tertullian accurately describes Biblical terminology here, so let's move on.
The scriptural evidence for this is abundant.
The most obvious passage of all, of course, is John 1:1-3. The Logos was in the beginning with God, and nothing was created without him. It is clearly and plainly stated, and this is the same Logos who "became flesh and dwelt among us" (Jn. 1:14). This Logos is "the only-begotten Son," who reveals the Father (Jn. 1:18).</p>
Verse 18 also says that no one has seen God at any time. Of course, we know that many people have seen the Son of God. He walked the earth among us. God, however, has never been seen by anyone. The only-begotten Son—or, probably more accurately, the only-begotten God—has revealed him.
The importance of this passage for the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be emphasized. No one has seen God at any time.
Really? Then who appeared to Moses in the burning bush? (Ex. 3:6). Whom did Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and the seventy elders of Israel see? (Ex. 24:9-10). Whom did Moses see from the cleft of the rock? (Ex. 34:5-6). Who did Adam walk with in the garden? (Gen. 3:8). Who appeared to Abraham and ate and had a long discussion with him? (Gen. 18). With whom did Jacob wrestle? (Gen. 32:30). Whom did Manoah see? (Judges 13:22). And, above all, whom did Isaiah see? (Isa. 6:1-5).
The apostle John answers most of these questions for us.
He tells us that Abraham saw Jesus (Jn. 8:56). He tells us that Isaiah "saw his day" and "spoke of him" (Jn. 12:40-41; the quote in that passage is from Isaiah 6).
In fact, as usual, we find that the early Christians knew these things and constantly referred to appearances of God on earth as appearances of the Word and Son of God.
There is a very interesting passage in Zechariah letting us know that the Word of God ruled Israel at the will of his Father.
Whoa, whoa! Let's pause right there. Who sends the Lord of hosts anywhere? This "Lord" is the tetragrammaton in Hebrew, YHWH. Nobody sends Yahweh anywhere, right?
Well, that explains everything. The Lord of hosts sent him. Wait! The Lord of hosts is sending the Lord of hosts?
In Hebrew the words are exactly the same. This is not some unusual twist of the Hebrew language which really means that the Lord of hosts is sending the prophet, in this case Zechariah. The one being sent can wave his hand over nations and make them plunder for Israel's slaves. I don't think Zechariah could do that.
Maybe the early Christians are right. Maybe our God and Father "cannot be contained" and has never been seen. Therefore, his Son, the Word, ruled Israel directly, sent by the Father and, as always, doing the will of the Father.
I cannot imagine what the alternative explanation is to that passage.
As an aside, if you are ever talking to a Jehovah's Witness, they don't know about this passage. If you show it to them, they will be surprised that it's in the Bible. They will quickly turn to their own New World Translation, and they will find that their own translation also has Jehovah of hosts sending Jehovah of hosts.
They will then assure you that you are interpreting it wrong, even though all you've done is read it.
Don't make the same mistake. You may reject my interpretation of the passage, but don't let yourself just ignore the passage.
The writer of Hebrews spends the first three chapters of the book explaining that Jesus is greater that all other sources of God's Word. In chapter three, he gets to Moses. How much greater is Jesus than Moses?
Can we really suggest that the writer was saying anything other than that Jesus was the maker of Moses? If that is not what he meant, why did he say it?
It's not like he didn't prepare us for the thought. In 1:10, he tells us that the Son laid the foundation of the earth and that the heavens are the work of his hands. If he made the heavens, how much more Moses?
In verse 12 he tells us that Jesus will fold the heavens up like a garment.
A lot of people think Paul wrote Hebrews. I'm not among them; neither are most scholars. Among the other letters of Paul, though, are references to Jesus as the Creator who came from heaven that are just as clear as those in Hebrews.
Philippians 2 tells us that he was once in the form of God, then later was in the likeness and form of man.
Protestants, especially American Protestants, are very quick to dismiss the testimony of the early Christians. Some of it is just a rebellion against the Roman Catholics and their "early church fathers," most of whom are not early. Augustine, Jerome, and even John Chrysostom are after the rise of "Christendom," when the Roman government and the church became thoroughly mixed.
Prior to Constantine the Great and the legalization of Christianity, however, are three centuries when one of the primary beliefs of the church was that they were to preserve and pass on the teachings of the apostles unchanged. I would like to question the wisdom, and even the sanity, of rejecting their testimony without overwhelming reason to do so.
Many Protestants believe that the churches went astray almost immediately after the time of the apostles. I know I was taught that as a young Christian. In my case, the issue was the early Christian emphasis on works. I was told that their zeal for works was a product of a falling away into legalism rather than exactly the response Jesus died for (Tit. 2:11-14).
Modalists (Jesus only), and those who reject the divinity of the Son of God are the ones most likely to say the churches immediately fell away on the subject of the Trinity. This is only true because Protestants hold to the Roman Catholic definition of the Trinity (the one God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and both think they teach exactly what the early Christians taught. Show them that the early Christians taught something different, and even Catholic scholars argue that the earliest fathers did not yet understand the Trinity.
"Development" of the Trinity doctrine is a favorite belief of both Catholics and Protestants. The early Christians would have been horrified. To them novelty was heresy. They were not seeking to develop the doctrine of the Trinity or any other doctrine. The apostles finished that work on their own. The early churches were trying to preserve the apostles' doctrine, not improve on it!
I have to ask those who believe that the early churches fell away immediately to examine how reasonable that thought is? Every church everywhere went astray in exactly the same direction within a few decades and there was no outcry anywhere?
On top of that, now, two thousand years later, you personally, or your group, has happened upon truth in disagreement with churches that were started by the apostles, spoke the same dialect of Greek as the apostles, and lived in the same culture? How likely is that?
Let's assume that even though it's unlikely, it's possible. If so, there's one more issue to address.
If you are going to make the astonishing and unlikely claim that all the churches of the apostles went astray in one generation and that you now possess truth that they did not have, surely it is appropriate to demand extraordinary evidence for this extraordinary claim. The problem is that the most popular alternatives to the early Christian and Nicene definition of the Trinity have significant Scriptural problems. All of them have numerous verses that require fanciful, unlikely explanations in order to make them fit their modern, novel view.
The early Christian view has no difficult verses, with one possible exception that could only be pressed by modalists.
The Protestant/Catholic version of the Trinity says that the one God is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, all equal in every way.
Most of the above is meant to correct this definition, so I won't expand much. Here's the problems:
I will add one more argument against the Protestant/Catholic Trinity. Both Protestants and Catholics recite and honor the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. Both those creeds directly teach the early Christian definition of the Trinity. If they are going to recite and defend those creeds, wouldn't it be good if they agreed with them?
Modalism is the teaching that the one God carried out three roles much like an actor that plays three roles in a play. Today we would call it "Jesus only," and it would be the doctrine held by United Pentecostal and Apostolic churches. It is the earliest false definition of the Trinity taught in the churches, dating back to Sabellius in the early second century. It did not come from outside but from within.
It is difficult to explain the words in this quote, but not difficult to explain what it means. "Dispensation" or "economy" are both references to the order of things, the way things are. Tertullian is saying that the simple folk that make up the church have difficulty understanding the "economy" of God, that he has a Son, of the same essence as himself. As a result, they are easily won over by modalists who deny that the divinity can include God and his Son.
So modalists can make the claim that they date back to a very early period in the church. Note, though, that the churches put Sabellius out, and the next major outbreak of modalism was with Praxeas almost a century later. Praxeas was also expelled from the churches. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that some church leaders bordered on modalism all the way into the fourth century.
In my opinion, the death of modalism lay not so much in its refutation, but in its absorption into the definition of the Trinity. The Athanasian Creed, teaching that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all equal in every way is a compromise between the Nicene definition and modalism.
Modalism may be an easy fallback for those that find the apostles' definition of the Trinity difficult to understand, but it has severe Scriptural problems, despite how loudly modern proponents insist it's true.
My favorite Scripture that causes problems for modalism is 1 Cor. 15:24-28.
Don't miss that in this verse, once again, God is said to be the Father. At the end, Jesus will turn the kingdom he has ruled over to God, his Father. Paul goes on to explain that when the Scriptures say that everything will be put under Jesus' feet, the one exception is God, who put all things under his feet. Paul ends with ...
Modalists say that this means that the "role" or "mode" of Son of God will go away, and God will rule as God, no longer functioning as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit.
Personally, I am somewhat speechless at such a claim. Their idea is that God was the Father in creation, the Son in redemption, and the Holy Spirit in the church. I simply cannot fathom why God would do such a thing. To what purpose? Why the "disguises"?
On top of this, the idea crashes on the reefs of almost every reference to the Son in the Scriptures.
We could go through the New Testament writings and find numerous verses referring to the Father and Son separately and at the same time. If God was playing two roles, then he was playing them both at the same time, and if that is the case, what is the difference between modalism and the doctrine of the Protestants and Catholics?
Arianism was the doctrine promoted by Arius beginning about AD 318 that the Son was created from nothing rather than born from the substance of God. It is the doctrine held by the Jehovah's Witnesses today.
Arians would not deny that Jesus pre-existed. They would not even deny his "divinity," though they would claim that his divinity is different from the Father's.
In a very real sense, Arians create two Gods. As the Jehovah's Witnesses like to put it, the Father is "Almighty God" and the Son is merely "Mighty God" (Isa. 9:6).
The scriptural problem with this is the creation of two divinities. The Scriptures and the churches have always acknowledged only one, a divinity shared by God and his Son. God fills the whole universe, so even in birthing his Word, God has not divided the divine substance.
Arianism runs into problems in the places where Jesus is called God, such as in Titus 2:13 and Hebrews 1:8. If Jesus is God, but he is not of the substance of the Father, then we have two divinities and thus two Gods.
The idea that an undivided divine substance is important is new to us, but it was important to early Christians.
Other verses that give Arians fits are Zechariah 2:8-11, where the Lord of hosts sends the Lord of hosts (quoted above); Genesis 19:24, which is similar.
I should add that I have explained the early Christian view of the Trinity to two Jehovah's Witnesses, both of whom quickly agreed with me, without any argument. I was a little surprised.
I have only recently run into this doctrine. I did not know that any group of any size argued this. There are so many Scriptures that speak of Jesus' pre-existence that I assumed that to hold this position one would have to reject the inspiration of the apostles.
I have recently been astonished to find out that is not true. I ran across a group on Facebook called Restoration Fellowship. It has 459 members, so it is not a small group. I tried to get answers from them on why they believe what they believe, but they answered with so much mocking that I couldn't get anything sensible from them. I did get a few answers from an individual that I messaged.
I don't know where to start in listing the Scriptural problems with this position. John 1:1-3 with v. 14 and v. 18 tells us that Jesus was in the beginning with God, made everything, and is the only one who has seen God and can reveal him. Colossians 1:14-16 tells us that he is the firstborn over all creation, and that he is responsible for creating everything. Hebrews 1-3 argues that the Son is the messenger who should be listened to above all messengers because he is greater than the angels and Moses, as much so as the builder is greater than the house. There he is said to have laid the foundation of the earth and to have made the heavens.
In the answers I got from this one individual, I was told that God's wisdom and word pre-existed, but that those qualities of God pre-existed. Jesus himself did not.
Honestly, I did not understand the responses well enough to represent them well, as it seemed much better to simply take Scripture for what it says, not find ways around what it says. That, to me, is important on every subject, and every time I discuss any doctrine, it is my goal to get my readers and hearers to take the Scriptures plainly.
The members of the apostles churches did that, and they teach doctrines that allow the believer to read the Scriptures without confusion and without stumbling over difficult verses. In modern churches, we have at least dozens and perhaps hundreds of verses that we stumble over and then labor to explain away or ignore. Even simple ones, such as 1 Cor. 8:6, which tell us there is one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus the King, don't fall within our statements of faith and cause the average Christian to wonder.
On other subjects, we proclaim faith alone, then invent bizarre explanations for James' statement that justification is not by faith alone. Or worse, like Martin Luther and Witness Lee, we claim that James did not understand the Gospel. For Protestants, we ignore and reject the teaching of Scripture that the church is the pillar and support of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), and the Roman Catholics apply the verse to an organization that is wholly absent from Scripture.
As for me, my goal is to quit dancing with Scripture and just believe it for what it says.
Doing that has led me back to the teachings of the churches of the apostles, the earliest churches. As a result, it seems not just plausible, but apparent, that they were possessors of the true faith rather than one of the many divided sects of modern Christendom.
In Isaiah 9:6 it is written that Jesus would not only be known as mighty God, but also as "everlasting Father."
No one calls Jesus everlasting Father except the modalists, whose doctrine conflicts with Scripture more than all the others I have listed here. Why does Isaiah say that his name will be known as everlasting Father?
The only answer to this that I have heard is that the verse can also be translated "Father of eternity," and Jesus has that title because he is the creator of everything. However, is he really the Creator of eternity? That's a mystical concept. Is eternity created at all, or is it just a word to describe the fact that God is without beginning and without end?
I searched the early Christian writings to see if they discuss this, and I found out why they do not. Here is Isaiah 9:6 in the Septuagint that all of them read: