Development of the Christian Doctrine of Trinity from the New Testament Church to the Nicene Creed
The doctrine of trinity has been an important issue of both the early and the modern church. The belief in one God has also been an important aspect of the church since the early days (Friesenhahn, 3). In the fourth century, there arose some heretical doctrines who propagated the idea that the son of God (Jesus Christ) was a creature of God and therefore not truly God. The orthodox faith developed the Nicene creed to declare their stand on the issue of trinity and to refute the heretical doctrines (Pelikan, 17). The stand of the orthodox faith is that the son is truly God since He is the logos of God.
Definition of Trinity by the Early Christians
Irenaeus was an orthodox believer who was a greatly respected Christian of his times. He followed the teachings of the Polycarp of Smyrna who was a bishop appointed by the apostle John. The writings of Irenaeus in 185 A.D. provide us with some ideas about trinity that were held by the early church. In some of his writing about faith, Irenaeus notes that what they have received from the apostles is faith in one God. It is worth noting that faith in one God has always been an important aspect of the Christian faith. In his letter to the Corinthians Paul notes that there are many gods whether in heaven or earth but for Christians, there is only God the father and one lord, Jesus Christ. It follows that the early Christians had faith in one God. Whereas this is the case, there have been some differing views of what faith in one God really means. For instance, Arianism rose in the fourth century. Arianism is the belief that the son of God is a lesser God and that God the father is the only true God. This notion which has been deemed incorrect by most scholars is still adopted by some modern churches. An example of such churches are the Jehovah’s witnesses.
The Logos of God
The early churches mainly believed that the son was the logos of God. This was derived form the gospel of John chapter 1. The chapter represents the word who was with God from the beginning and who was sent by God to the world. The early church defined this word as logic. Tertullian explains the chapter to mean that before all things were created, God was alone. The argument raised is that he was alone because there was nothing external to him. Tertullian further explains that even though he was alone, he had with Him that which he possessed, that is, His own word/logic/reason. A further explanation is that when God was pleased, He put forth His word so that everything was created through the word. As seen, this kind of teaching by the early church could have contributed to the conclusion by Arius that there was a time that the son of God did not exist. The early church response to the concerns of Arius is that there was a time when the son was not separate from the father but there was not a time that He did not exist.
The main issue at the council of Nicaea was whether the son of God was ‘one substance’ (homoousios) with God the father. The argument put forth is that if the son of God was the word who was with God from the beginning, then He is an integral part of God. In other words, He is made of the same divine ‘essence’ or ‘material’ as that of the father since He originates from the father. In other words, the son of God is one substance with God since the son came out of the father. The second hypothesis put forward by the Nicene council is guided by the assumption that the son was created from nothing. The council argues that if He was created from nothing, then God must have used something to create him. The substance used to create him could probably be the same that was used to create angels. The Greek Christians simply referred to the substance as ‘matter’. The council concluded that if that was the substance that was used to create the son, then he is not really God.
Athenagoras was a 2nd century apologist. He had addressed the issue of the matter a long time before the Nicaea raised it. The apologist was claiming to speak on behalf of all Christians. He claimed that the multitudes who cannot distinguish between matter and God worship the idols. His proposition was that true Christians knew how to differentiate between that which is created and that which is not. His main concern was that Christians should have an understanding that God is not a creature but the creator. Athenagoras further claimed that Christians are not atheists because they believe in one God who not created and who created the universe through his logos. He also observes that Christians acknowledge the son of God who is the logos of the father. It follows that according to Athenagoras, Christians believe that the son of God is an integral part of God. As indicated earlier, the doctrine of Arius denied homoousios. The Nicene creed addresses Arianism directly. It stipulates that the son of God is the only-begotten of the father. In other words, the son of God is of the substance of God the father. It further observes that the son is of divine origin “God from God… true God from true God.”
The Nicene Creed
The Nicene creed is also referred to as the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan creed. It is a statement of the orthodox faith held by the early Christians. The creed mainly revolves around the topic of trinity. The reason for this is that it is the basis on which it was formed. It was developed to declare the faith of the orthodox church concerning the issue of trinity. In addition to doing this, it also aimed at opposing certain heresies that had risen during the fourth century. Although there were several heresies, the main on that the Nicene creed intended to oppose was that of Arianism (Giles, 4). As observed earlier, the doctrine of Arianism proposed that the son of God was a creature of God and therefore not God. Those who subscribed to the doctrine, believed that there was one main God (God the father) and that the son was a lesser God since he was created using matter. The heresy had greatly disturbed the early church concerning the issue of trinity and that of the person of Christ (McGrath, 9). It is worth noting that both Arians based their beliefs on the gospel of John chapter one. This is also the chapter that the Nicene creed is based on. It follows that the sharp differences between the orthodox faith and that of the heretical faiths emanated from different interpretation of the scripture.
Both the Greek (Eastern) and the Latin (Western) church held the Nicene creed in honour. However, there was one main difference between the two churches. The difference was that the Western church insisted on the inclusion of the phrase “and the son” in the article. This phrase was to be included on the procession to the holy spirit. In the modern society, many churches have adopted the Nicene creed. It is taught and recited in most of the churches. It is important to note that most contemporary Christians have no idea of where the Nicene creed came from. Most recite it as a teaching of the church. There are also some church denominations that do not subscribe to the Nicene creed. As observed earlier, a good example is the Jehovah’s witnesses. It is worth noting that the main difference between the orthodox faith and those who do not subscribe to the Nicene creed mainly stems from the varied interpretation of the scripture (Levering, 5). This is evidenced by the fact that both the orthodox and other faiths use the scripture as the basis for their faith.
The belief in one God has been an important aspect of the Christian church since the early days. The writings of Irenaeus who was an early Christian shed some light on the beliefs held by the early church concerning the trinity. The writing indicate that early Christians had faith in one God. In his letter to the Corinthians, apostle Paul notes that although there are many gods, Christians believe in only one God the father and only one God the lord Jesus Christ (Corinthians 8: 5-6). In the fourth century, there arose some heretical doctrines who proposed that the son of God was a creature and therefore not God. One of the main heretical doctrines was that developed by Arius who argued that the son was created by matter and was therefore not logos of God. The Nicene creed was developed to declare the stand of the orthodox faith and to refute the heresies. The Nicene creed stipulates that the son of God is truly God since he was an integral part of God since the beginning and therefore logos of God.
Friesenhahn, Jacob H. The Trinity and theodicy: the Trinitarian theology of von Balthasar and the problem of evil. Routledge, 2016.
Giles, Kevin. The Nicene and Reformed Doctrine of the Trinity. Priscilla Papers (2017): 3-7.
Levering, Matthew. Engaging the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit: Love and Gift in the Trinity and the Church. Baker Academic, 2016.
McGrath, Alister E. Christian theology: An introduction. John Wiley & Sons, 2016.
Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Volume 5: Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700). Vol. 5. University of Chicago Press, 2018.