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If you read and understood the last section of the early Church definition of the Trinity, you are now an extremely rare person. You actually understand the Apostles Creed! It's very likely you're the only one in your church who does!
But now you've got a problem. The Nicene Creed's version of the Trinity is considered heresy in some places.
What happened is simple to explain.
The controversy over the Trinity did not die down after Nicea. For the next 50 to 60 years there were Arian bishops and Arian sects within the Church.
Constantius, emperor of Rome after his father Constantine, was as involved in the affairs of the Church as his father had been. Constantius, however, leaned toward the Arian view, and Arian bishops and churches thrived under his reign.
In order to overcome the Arian opposition the Nicene bishops allied with a third viewpoint in the Church, the modalists. Modalism had been around since the 2nd century. Modalists not only believed that the Son was of the same substance as the Father, they believed the Son was the Father. They did not believe in the Trinity.
In opposition to the Arians these two points of view united and gradually became one. This new point of view took the idea from the modalists that the Father and the Son were exactly the same, but it also took from the Nicene view of the Trinity that they are separate persons.
That view is summed up in a creed from A.D. 361 (36 years after Nicea) called the Athanasian Creed.
Athanasius, who could not attend the Council of Nicea because he was not yet a bishop, headed up the battle for the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity against Eusebius of Nicomedia and Arius after the Council of Nicea. It is highly unlikely that he wrote the Athanasian Creed, but it was named after him.
The Athanasian Creed reads:
So far, so good. This is definitely the Trinity of Nicea. However, it then continues:
Perhaps you can tell the difference between that wording—for which no Scripture can be found—and this from the Nicene Creed, almost directly quoted from 1 Corinthians 8:6:
1 Corinthians 8:6 and the Nicene Creed say that the one God is the Father, as we saw in The Definition of the Trinity (part I of this series of pages). They also say that Jesus Christ is the one Lord.
The Athanasian Creed, on the other hand, says all three persons of the Godhead are the one God and all three are the one Lord. This is the "mystery" of the modern view, but the modern view did not exist until the 4th century! In its place, the early churches—and, according to them, the apostles as well—had a clear explanation of the Trinity. It is true that the explanation is difficult, but it is clear.
The problem is, the Nicene Creed has been interpreted as though it's the Athanasian Creed since the 4th century. If you understand homoousios and the Nicene Creed, then you're almost 17 centuries out of date! Ouch!
The differences between the Trinity in the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds are a lot less than the differences between the Nicene Creed and the Arian heresy. It's important to address them nonetheless …
… for these reasons:
When the Jehovah's Witnesses quote the Ante-Nicene fathers, they aren't making up the quotes; they're just leaving out the ones they don't like. If you don't understand the early Christian view, you'll be confused by the quotes they use.
In almost every case, anything an early Christian writer says, he backs up with Scripture. These men—who didn't have a Bible, but sets of scrolls they had to reference—were masters of the Word. Tertullian, our guide in all this, was no exception.
After explaining the idea of the Word being begotten by God in eternity past, Tertullian produces Scripture to back this up. Two of those Scriptures were commonly quoted in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
But they're almost unknown to us.
Tertullian applies Proverbs 8:22 to the Trinity (specifically to the Son). Remember, "the Word" is the Logos that was inside God before all things, but which God "made second to himself by agitating it within himself" (Against Praxeas. ch. 5.)
The early Christians almost exclusively used a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) called the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX). This translation is also used regularly by New Testament writers, which accounts for differences you see between Old Testament verses and their quotes in the New Testament.
So Proverbs 8:22 as quoted by Tertullian—and the other early Christian writers who address the Trinity—is a little different than what you read in your Bible.
At least Proverbs 8:22 seems similar to our translations. Psalm 45:1, the second verse, will be almost unrecognizable to you.
The King James Version has Psalm 45:1 as: "My heart is inditing a good matter."
You probably don't even know what that could possibly mean. I know I didn't. The Holman Christian Standard Bible has: "My heart is moved by a noble theme."
That's not close to the LXX rendering. Tertullian gives it as "My heart has emitted my most excellent Word."
The early church loved that verse. To them it was a clear reference to the begetting of the Son in eternity past. Here's Tertullian's explanation of it:
This sort of teaching about the Trinity is common throughout the writings of the Pre-Nicene Church. It is what is affirmed by the Nicene Creed when it says, "begotten, not made."
I couldn't resist adding this an ironic side note on who's heretical and who's not. If you're interested, it will open in a new window. (I suppose even if you're not interested it will still open in a new window when you click on it)
We've covered this in The Definition of the Trinity. We now need to address the conflict between this terminology and that of our modern view.
The Nicene Creed reads, "We believe in one God, the Father … and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father."
To the early Church, the one God was the Father. Since the time of the Athanasian Creed, not long after Nicea, the one God is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
This is more about terminology than it is about the actual substance of our faith in the Trinity of God. The early Church believed that there was one divine essence, and the Son and the Holy Spirit were both of that one divine essence. Thus the one God, and his divine essence, includes the Son and Holy Spirit.
However, their terminology (and Biblical terminology) is that the one God is the Father. This is the reason that Paul writes, "For us there is but one God, the Father … and one Lord, Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 8:6). It is also the reason that when Jesus prayed, he prayed, "This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (John 17:3).
The reason we give for not using this terminology in modern Christianity is that the Son is regularly called God in the Scriptures (e.g., John 1:1; Tit. 2:13; there are many others). If the Son is called God, and that repeatedly, how can the Father be called the one God, both in Scripture and in the Nicene Creed?
Fortunately, Tertullian did not leave us without an explanation on this matter. He addressed it directly:
When the Son is mentioned alone, Tertullian says, we can call him God because he is of the substance of the Father. When mentioned together, the Father is to be called God, and the Son is to be referred to as Lord.
This not only answers the question of why the Father is called the one God in Scripture, it also shows that the idea of homoousios was not new at the Council of Nicea. It was in common use even in the 2nd century (or, in Tertullian's case, the early 3rd century).
Jesus said in John 14:28, "The Father is greater than I."
Here we find another difference between the Nicene Trinity and the modern view. We modern Christians understand Jesus to be referring to himself only during his time on earth. He was living in a body as a man and submitted to the Father. It is for this reason only that the Father was greater than he.
Before and after his time on earth, however, we believe he was in all ways equal to the Father.
The Athanasian Creed agrees, asserting, "In this Trinity none is before or after another, none is greater or less than another… . the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is … equal to the Father as touching his divinity, and inferior to the Father as touching his manhood."
The Council of Nicea, however, would not agree.
Up to and including the Council of Nicea, the church believed that God was inherently greater than his Word. The Father is greater than the Son, and that's an eternal thing. God is always going to be greater than his Word, which is just part of God.
This is a delicate issue to broach, so let's not leave it to Tertullian alone.
It is clear from these quotes, and from the consistency we see in other the early Christian writings about the Trinity, that the idea that the Father is greater than the Son is an eternal idea, not temporary while he was on earth.
The idea is unfamiliar to us, but it is not that hard to grasp. The Father is the one God, and the Son is the Word of that one God, begotten by him in eternity past. The Word of God, being in some sense "part" of God, says that the Father is greater than he is.
Otherwise he is exactly like God, in that he is of the substance and essence of God, being his Logos.
In fact, even while quoting Jesus as saying that the Father is greater, Tertullian refers to the Son as equal to the Father. Immediately after quoting Prov. 8:22, he writes:
I don't know how palatable any of that is to you, but it is history.
For more quotes and a more thorough discussion of this issue, see my book, Decoding Nicea (link to the right). I have put the chapters on the Trinity online. You can read those for free.
My newest book, Rome's Audacious Claim, was released December 1. See synopsis and reviews on Amazon.