by Mark Hanson
One of the most contested theological issues throughout church history is the doctrine of the Trinity. For many people the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD is a natural starting point for the orthodox position of the church regarding the Trinity. Prior to Nicaea the concept of the “Trinity” was not clearly defined or articulated, so the doctrine, as most understand it today, does appear at first glance to derive its founding from the events of that historic council which formed the common formulation in use today. But what of the earlier church fathers? Origen is often referenced as a key figure in the development of the formulation leading up to Nicaea, but this focus on a single individual neglects the development of others who had a hand in shaping doctrinal articulations for the following decades. This then raises the important point that merely referencing one council, Nicaea, as “the” starting point or one man, Origen, as being “the” foundation “of many early fourth-century theologies,” is incomplete.
The purpose of this article is to explore how Origen’s predecessors viewed the relationship among the Godhead, and to examine if there was a developing theology prior to Origen. This study endeavors to determine if earlier church fathers developed their theologies along the same trajectory traced through Origen and then to the formula later articulated at Nicaea. As theological engagement passes down from one generation to the next, it would be logical to assume that the teaching found in Nicaea would be a synthesis from centuries of increasingly significant reflection. This will be evaluated by comparing Origen’s work and writings against five major contributors to early church theology: Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria.
IGNATIUS [A.D. 30–107]
Ignatius is one of the earliest church fathers whose writings have been preserved. His correspondence has a genuinely pastoral, New Testament epistle-type flavor since the bulk of his extant writings are specifically addressed to churches in a manner similar to Paul. Quotations from Paul’s epistles in the New Testament comprise more of his writing than his own thoughts on almost any given subject. He viewed the Father as “the one true God.” In the same vein, he also stated that whoever “declares that there is but one God, only so as to take away the divinity of Christ, is a devil.”
In his Epistle to the Magnesians, Ignatius briefly references a view of the Godhead, perhaps even within the time of the writing of the New Testament.
“Study, therefore, to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles, that so all things, whatsoever ye do, may prosper both in the flesh and spirit; in faith and love; in the Son, and in the Father, and in the Spirit. . . . Be ye subject to the bishop, and to one another, as Jesus Christ to the Father, according to the flesh, and the apostles to Christ, and to the Father, and to the Spirit.”
While not directly expounding on the specific relationship between the three persons of the Godhead, it is obvious that Ignatius intended to communicate that their unique roles were distinct and equally important in the lives of believers. With such a pastoral flavor, Ignatius did not seem to delineate a specific doctrinal position. Rather, he focused on integrating God into life on the practical level, so that no aspect of the Godhead was ignored or neglected. Obviously, the church understood early on that there were inseparable elements which bound the Father, Son, and Spirit together as unity, or as a unit, while still distinguishing them as individuals. Yet, Ignatius notes that Christ submitted Himself to the Father willingly, just as Christians should to those who have been given authority over them.
By examining all the epistles Ignatius wrote to the different churches, small pieces of his broader theology emerge. Ignatius clearly notes the importance of the Father, Son, and Spirit, but he also details that Christ was completely God: “To the church . . . elected through the true passion by the will of the Father, and Jesus Christ our God.” “For our God, Jesus Christ was, according to appointment of God conceived in the womb of Mary . . . God Himself being manifested in human form for the renewal of eternal life.” Christ’s deity is seen early on in the church and is a key element around which many heresies arise due to misinterpretation or misunderstanding.
In his greeting to the Smyrnæans, he references the Godhead in this manner: “Ignatius, to the Church of God the Father, and of the beloved Jesus Christ . . . through the immaculate Spirit and Word of God.” Ignatius’ opening greeting to God’s church, of Christ, through the Spirit shows his understanding of the working of the Godhead that places God as the element of authority, Christ as the relational element, and the Spirit as the empowering element. But Ignatius uses a bit of analogy when he details a Christian’s relationship to the three persons of the Godhead when he spoke of
stones of the temple of the Father, prepared for the building of God the Father, and drawn up on high by the instrument of Jesus Christ, which is the cross, making use of the Holy Spirit as a rope, while your faith was the means by which you ascended.
Here the three persons are intricately woven together, and yet distinctly recognized, as Ignatius notes that “there are not then either three Fathers, or three Sons, or three Paracletes, but one Father, and one Son, and one Paraclete . . . into three possessed of equal honor.” While this is not formed in the same organized manner found in later creeds, Ignatius clearly places an emphasis on the Father and the Son, and does not neglect the role of the Spirit.
JUSTIN MARTYR [A.D. 110–165]
The writings of Justin Martyr are apologetic in scope and often directly address problems which lie in a realm outside the church, namely, the Roman government. For this reason his theological conception of the relationship between the members of the Godhead is assumed rather than stated. There are several instances where he lays out his basic beliefs in defense of his faith. In his Dialogue with Trypho he states that:
Christ being Lord, and God the Son of God . . . appears arrayed in such forms as the Father pleases; and they call Him the Word, because He carries tidings from the Father to men: but maintain that this power is indivisible and inseparable from the Father, just as they say that the light of the sun on earth is indivisible and inseparable from the sun in the heavens . . . so the Father, when He chooses, as they say, causes his power to spring forth, and when He chooses, He makes it return to Himself. . . . I asserted that this power was begotten from the Father, by His power and will, but not by abscission, as if the essence of the Father were divided (Italics mine).
Because he is addressing a Jewish audience, he highlights the conjoined divine nature of the Father and the Son. Justin Martyr is arguing for the fact that God’s power is completely manifest in Christ, something possible only because God’s essence is not divided, implying that Christ is of one essential nature with God. He illustrates this using fire as an example. When one puts a stick in the first fire and pulls it out with a flame to start a second fire, the two “fires” can be seen to be distinct, yet, in substance, are not lesser or different fire. The only distinction is in the multiple locations which can be observed so that one may perceive two fires where there was once one.
This interesting analogy also bears striking resemblance to the work of the Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2:3. While perhaps a bit of a stretch to say that Justin was alluding to this specific passage, his illustration does find a biblical precedent for the work of the Holy Spirit. The closest he comes to including all three persons in close contextual proximity is in a discussion about the Lord’s supper where the overseer takes the “bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks.” Here he incorporates all three persons into one of the sacraments, but does not go into depth as to their relationships.
In Justin’s First Apology, he also brings to light the unity of God and Christ in a different manner when referencing the work of demons who “attempt nothing else than to seduce men from God who made them, and from Christ His first-begotten . . . those who devote themselves to the contemplation of things divine, they secretly beat back.”
Being “seduced” away from both God and Christ is an interesting implication Justin draws from the role demons play in the spiritual realm. He evidences that, from the enemies’ perspective, the influences of God and Christ are of equal importance.
Along a similar vein, Justin frequently connects God and Christ together in many of these passages, often where the conception of “God” is treated in a more general sense. When God and Christ are placed in a parallel position regarding devotion and worship, it keeps the same tension found in the New Testament with which the Jews struggled. Justin later states this belief: “the Father of the universe has a Son; who also, being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God.” “For next to God, we worship and love the Word who is from the unbegotten and ineffable God.”
We worship the God of the Christians, whom we reckon to be the one from the beginning, the maker and fashioner of the whole creation, visible and invisible; and the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God . . . what I can say is insignificant in comparison with His boundless divinity . . . concerning Him of whom now I say that He is the Son of God.
It is evident that Justin connected God and Christ together in some sort of unity as he indicates that worship was ascribed to both. This is further confirmed as he also recognizes Christ’s divinity as limitless in nature as God Himself.
Justin details more specifically the role and position of Christ with respect to the Father, yet does not deny Christ’s deity when he states:
And His Son, who alone is properly called Son, the Word, who also was with Him and was begotten before the works, when at first He created and arranged all things by Him, is called Christ, in reference to His being anointed and God’s ordering all things through Him; this name itself also containing an unknown significance; as also the appellation “God” is not a name, but an opinion implanted in the nature of men of a thing that can hardly be explained.
One can find that several elements from the above quote are specifically addressed in the beginning of the Nicene Creed. Justin touches on the preexistence of the Son to God and also the role Christ played in creation. Both of these indicate threads of a pre-Nicene theology regarding the Godhead some two centuries before the first church sanctioned theological debates and treatises on the Trinity.
IRENAEUS [A.D. 120–202]
Irenaeus, a contemporary of Justin Martyr, is another key leader in early Trinitarian development. In Against Heresies he sets forth a theological construction of the Trinity that is very similar to the Trinitarian formula articulated two hundred years later at Nicaea, with the same order of precedence from the Father to the Son to the Spirit.
The Church . . . believes in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth . . . and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in one Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets . . . the Church, having received this preaching and this faith . . . carefully preserves it. She also believes these points just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth.
Here he clearly details that the “Christian belief” of one God includes the Father and the Son and the Spirit. Irenaeus adds an interesting element regarding a preexistent theology when he notes this as the tradition of faith passed down through the church concerning the doctrine of God’s nature. In light of the “threeness” of persons passed down through the church, he continues to relate that it does not make sense that they “should conceive of some other God besides Him who is the Framer, Maker, and Preserver of this universe.”
Irenaeus is unique in the way in which he describes God Himself, since “God . . . is He who, by His Word and Spirit, makes, and disposes, and governs all things, and commands all things into existence.” This statement places both Christ and the Spirit directly in subordination to God the Father. Undoubtedly, this is a high view of God in contrast to a more pluralistic view of gods:
For it must be that there is one Being who contains all things, and formed in His own territory all those things which have been created, according to His will; or again that there are numerous unlimited creators and gods . . . no one of them all therefore, is God. For there will be much wanting to every one of them, possessing only a very small part when compared with all the rest. The name of the Omnipotent will thus be brought to an end, and such opinion will of necessity fall into impiety.
Continuing on this theme of “the Creator,” Irenaeus states that God is the ultimate cause of creation by using the illustration that when a tree is cut down, it is not the axe which receives the credit, but the man. However, he goes on to clarify that
He Himself in Himself, after a fashion which we can neither describe nor conceive, predestinating all things, formed them as He pleased . . . while He formed all things that were made by His Word. . . . For this is a peculiarity of the pre-eminence of God, not to stand in need of other instruments for the creation of those things which are summoned into existence. His Word is both suitable and sufficient for the formation of all things.
Here he references the “Word” which most likely refers to Christ, whom he later describes as “the Son of God, the Only-begotten, who is also the Word of the Father.” He expounds on this idea by saying:
This is Christ, the Son of the living God. For I have shown from the Scriptures, that no one of the sons of Adam is as to everything, and absolutely, called God, or named Lord. But that He is Himself in His own right, beyond all men who ever lived, God, and Lord, and King Eternal, and the Incarnate Word.
Christ being called God here has significance when Irenaeus states that “unless the Word of God dwell with, and the Spirit of the Father be in you . . . ye cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Between these two statements he views Christ as being in essence God, but also at the same time the Word of God. This seems to indicate that he views Christ in two different relational realms as He is on the same plane as God the Father, and yet still proceeds from the Father as does the Spirit.
TERTULLIAN [A.D. 145–220]
Tertullian, in refuting Praxeas, follows close after Irenaeus with a similarly condensed and succinctly written articulation of the Godhead:
We . . . believe that there is only one God . . . this one only God has also a Son, His Word, who proceeded from Himself . . . who sent also from heaven from the Father, according to His own promise, the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, the sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit . . . This rule of faith has come down to us from the beginning of the gospel.
Tertullian follows Irenaeus in keeping these statements very closely tied to the tradition of the church as it was the one passed down to them from the beginning. Christianity, only about a century old, was being attacked on all sides by the Roman government, the Jewish religious establishment, and by heretical teaching. As the heretical opposition arose, it split the church from within, so much so that Tertullian indicates there was some uneasiness in the view he put forth:
the majority of believers, are startled at the dispensation (of the Three in One), on the ground that their very rule of faith withdraws them from the world’s plurality of gods to the one only true God; not understanding that, although He is the one only God, He must yet be believed in with His own οivκονομi,α (stewardship). The numerical order and distribution of the Trinity they assume to be a division of the Unity.”
Tertullian holds this concept of a unity of the persons within the Godhead in spite of opposition, apparently viewing it as a key method of preserving the true faith. This is evident as he comments on martyrs of the faith who would “testify that one and the same Holy Spirit is always operating even until now, and God the Father Omnipotent, and his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, whose is the glory and infinite power for ever and ever.”
In his treatise on baptism, referencing the tripartite baptismal formula, Tertullian brings to light his understanding of the combined work of the Father, Son, and Spirit in relation to salvation:
the washing away of sins, which faith, sealed in (the name of) the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, obtains. For if “in the mouth of three witnesses every word shall stand:” . . . how much more does the number of the divine names suffice for the assurance of our hope . . . wherever there are three (that is, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,) there is the Church, which is a body of three.
While not specifically delineating individual roles, this commentary on one of the few Trinitarian-like formulations found in Scripture gives insight as to how the early church interpreted and applied the understanding within these passages.
Tertullian also delves into broader theological elucidations when he articulates what may be one of the first cogent written understandings of the unity of the Godhead, while at the same time giving a proper understanding of individuality in the relationships within the persons of the Godhead:
One cannot believe in the One Only God in any other way than by saying that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are the very selfsame person . . . by unity of substance . . . unity into a Trinity, placing in order the three persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God.
He even titled this chapter “The Catholic Doctrine of the Trinity and Unity.” It is fascinating to see such a detailed articulation of a Trinitarian formula nearly a century and a half prior to its formal recognition within the broader church assembly at Nicaea.
CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA [A.D. 153–193/217]
Clement is the father closest to the time of Origen’s writing. Because of this close proximity, there is a greater significance to the material in tracing the development of Trinitarian theology so as to give a fuller understanding in comparison to Origen. Looking at Clement’s view of the Spirit, it is clear that he sees the Spirit as God’s active presence in the world today. Clement continues the pattern of referencing the Spirit mostly in his role as the prompter of God’s prophetic messages. But he does detail a few unique functions by giving an illustration concerning the Spirit’s work through Christ as he defines “the Spirit (as) being the energetic principle of the Word, as blood is of flesh.” But the Spirit also works in the human realm as well, since Christ’s “instruction leads to faith, and faith with baptism is trained by the Holy Spirit.”
In referencing Christ’s role, Clement notes that “the energy of the Lord has a reference to the Almighty; and the Son is, so to speak, the energy of the Father.” This terminology is most often used in reference to the work of Christ proceeding from God as his spoken Word during the process of creation. Elsewhere he details the divine nature and role of Christ: “For the image of God is His Word, the genuine Son of Mind, the Divine Word.” “This Word, then, the Christ, the cause of both our being at first (for He was in God) and of our well-being, this very Word has now appeared as man, He alone being both, both God and man.” “Our instructor is like His Father God, whose son He is, sinless, blameless, and with a soul devoid of passion; God in the form of man, stainless, the minister of His Father’s will, the Word who is God, who is in the Father, who is at the Father’s right hand, and with the form of God is God.” “The Saviour . . . the Divine Word, He that is truly most manifest Deity, He that is made equal to the Lord of the universe; because He was His Son, and the Word was in God.” “Our Instructor is the holy God Jesus . . . the loving God Himself is our Instructor.”
With this summary he touches on Christ’s perfection, humanity, service to God, his role as God’s “Word,” his role in creation, his likeness to God, his placement at God’s right hand, and his essence as “God.”
Concerning God the Father, Clement notes that He is “the great First Cause, the Maker of all things, and Creator of those very first principles, the unbeginning God.” Elsewhere he places the highest place of prominence to God the Father by stating that “God is one, and beyond the one and above the Monad itself.” Here he seems to have almost placed God outside of the concept of “oneness,” as he notes that God is even “above the Monad,” almost as if to say that whatever terms man might use to define God, God is still much more than a finite description could ever articulate.
As for the unity of the three members of the Godhead, Clement adds some uniqueness when he affirms that Christians are “protected as it is by the power of God the Father, and the blood of God the Son, and the dew of the Holy Spirit.” His use of the term “dew” could possibly allude to Christ’s illustration of baptism by the Spirit in Acts 1:5, or it may just be a similar metaphor to symbolize the Spirit’s complete covering. Clearly Clement sees the work of the Spirit originating from God and being unified into a whole along with Christ. His articulation of the unified oneness of the Godhead appears in condensed Triune statements in a few of his writings, incorporating the Father, Son, and Spirit into some formulaic constructions.
“Nor is the Father without the Son; for the Son is with the Father. And the son is the true teacher respecting the Father; and that we may believe in the Son, we must know the Father, with whom also is the Son.” “Son and Father, both in One, O Lord . . . the Alone Father and Son, Son and Father, the Son, Instructor and Teacher, with the Holy Spirit, all in One, in whom all is all, for whom all is One.”
Clement affirms a connection between the three persons of the Godhead when he discusses the act of salvation: “thou shalt be freed from destruction: the word of God will be thy pilot, and the Holy Spirit will bring thee to anchor in the haven of heaven. Then shalt thou see my God.” This in effect implies that without the work of this dynamic relationship found within both Christ and the Spirit, one cannot see God. Even though Clement often tends to separate the Spirit from God and Christ, he does bring them altogether as one when he states that “the universal Father is one, and one the universal Word; and the Holy Spirit is one and the same everywhere.” This statement of the “oneness” of the Godhead is evident in one of his theological foundations as he continues connecting the Godhead directly to the unity of the church:
For from the very reason that God is one, and the Lord one, that which is in the highest degree honourable is lauded in consequence of its singleness, being an imitation of the one first principle. In the nature of the One, then, is associated in a joint heritage the one Church.
But nothing exists, the cause of whose existence is not supplied by God. Nothing, then, is hated by God, nor yet by the Word. For both are one—that is, God.
Here Clement takes a step outside of purely theological philosophy and moves into the realm of practical application, making the unity of the Godhead the basis for the unity of the church. While he does not delve deeply into the matter, he does clearly understand and raises this “oneness” as a key element to the life of the church body as a whole.
ORIGEN [A.D. 185–230/254]
There is no doubt that of those surveyed here, Origen by far had the most organized and voluminous insight into the relationship amongst the Godhead. He clearly details that the “Christian belief” includes the Father, Son and Spirit, and even places them in that very same order of precedence. Origen’s first three points in De Principiis move in a progressive and systematic fashion nearly identical to the modern articulation of Trinitarian doctrine:
The particular points clearly delivered in the teaching of the apostles are as follow: — First, That there is one God, who created and arranged all things, and who, when nothing existed, called all things into being. . . . Secondly, That Jesus Christ Himself, who came . . . became a man, and was incarnate although God, and while made a man remained the God which He was. . . . Thirdly, the apostles related that the Holy Spirit was associated in honour and dignity with the Father and the Son (Italics mine).
In detailing the individual persons, he notes that “God Himself is the beginning of all things,” and as “the Father of all things, fills and holds together the world with the fullness of his power.”This is the “one God, who created and arranged all things, and who, when nothing existed, called all things into being.”These statements establish Origen’s foundation for how he understands the work of both Christ and the Holy Spirit. He always comes back to how they are related to God Himself. Through that relationship he describes each one’s individual purpose. God is displayed as the ultimate primary force behind everything. Origen states:
Certain that all things which exist in this world, or take place in it, are ordered by the providence of God . . . under the disposal of His providential government, yet others again unfold themselves so mysteriously and incomprehensibly, that the plan of Divine Providence with regard to them is completely concealed.
In regards to the mystery of Christ, Origen states that “the existence of the Son is derived from the Father but not in time, nor from any other beginning, except, as we have said, from God Himself.” Because “He is the beginning and the end, but . . . He is not the beginning, [since] the Word was in the beginning.” His relationship with the Father is inherently tied to understanding his point of origin which either affirms or denies his deity. This is at the heart of any Trinitarian discussion. Origen further expounds on this relationship in regard to the
bodily advent and incarnation of the only-begotten Son of God, with respect to whom we are not to suppose that all the majesty of His divinity . . . was either rent asunder from the Father, or restrained and confined within . . . His bodily person. . . . [I]t ought neither to be believed that anything of divinity was wanting in Christ, nor that any separation at all was made from the essence of the Father, which is everywhere.
Origen understands that Christ “is judged to be the perfect essence of God the Father; for these things cannot be severed from Him, or even be separated from His essence.” His affirmations of Christ’s deity here are clear and direct. While debates would later rage as to the definition of “essence,” it is evident from early on that the church fathers understood Christ’s “oneness” with the Father to be a perfect reflected image of God Himself. Following the concept of the perfect image Origen also argues:
The true God, then, is “The God,” and those who are formed after Him are gods, images, as it were, of Him the prototype. But the archetypal image, again, of all these images is the Word of God, who being with God is at all times God.
Origen sees Christ as the physical canvas upon which the divine can be seen, understood, and experienced.
In attempting to grasp the work of the Spirit, Origen starts his discourse on the Spirit in this manner: “It is time, then, that we say a few words to the best of our ability regarding the Holy Spirit . . . if indeed any definition or description of Holy Spirit can be discovered?” Christ appropriately receives primary billing as the main actor on the biblical stage; hence inquiry into the Holy Spirit often was a minor point of inquiry. Yet Origen does note the Spirit’s place in regard to the Godhead as “the apostles related that the Holy Spirit was associated in honour and dignity with the Father and the Son.” And within his broader study of Scripture, he also observes that “it is the same God Himself, and the same Christ, so also is it the same Holy Spirit who was in the prophets and apostles.” In dealing with the being of the Holy Spirit, Origen’s understanding was that
even although something else existed before the Holy Spirit, it was not by progressive advancement that He came to be the Holy Spirit; as if anyone should venture to say, that at the time when He was not yet the Holy Spirit He was ignorant of the Father, but that after He had received knowledge He was made the Holy Spirit. For if this were the case, the Holy Spirit would never be reckoned in the Unity of the Trinity, i.e., along with the unchangeable Father and His Son, unless He had always been the Holy Spirit.”
This statement clearly evidences his presuppositions regarding the concept of the Trinity, but also clearly shows how that understanding intricately shapes his beliefs of each individual person of the Godhead. Beyond articulating the unique characteristics of the Father, Son, and Spirit, Origen spends time expounding on their interconnecting relationships. Origen, writing more than a century prior to the Council of Nicaea, explains at length his belief in the oneness of the Father and the Son by stating that “you may understand that the omnipotence of Father and Son is one and the same, as God and the Lord are one and the same with the Father.” He expounds further by stating, “What belongs to the nature of deity is common to the Father and the Son.” This then forms the basis for not just mere doctrine but actual practice. Origen continues by noting:
We worship one God, the Father and the Son . . . the Father of truth, and the Son, who is the truth; and these, while they are two, considered as persons or subsistences [sic], are one in unity of thought, in harmony and in identity of will. So entirely are they one, that he who has seen the Son, “who is the brightness of God’s glory, and the express image of His person,” has seen in Him who is the image, of God, God Himself.
He also wrestles with the relationship between the Son and the Spirit, noting that at times the Spirit appears to take priority, citing Isaiah 48:16 as an example. In contrast, however, he notes that the “Holy Spirit is the most excellent and the first in order of all that was made by the Father through Christ. And this, perhaps, is the reason why the Spirit is not said to be God’s own Son.” The context here is difficult to discern whether he is implying the Spirit was created by God through Christ, but, as was noted previously, he states in relation to the creation of the Spirit, “if this were the case, the Holy Spirit would never be reckoned in the Unity of the Trinity, i.e., along with the unchangeable Father and his Son, unless He had always been the Holy Spirit.”
In regard to the relationship between all three persons of the Godhead, Origen urges his audience to “consider, therefore, that there are three hypostases, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” and goes on to quote 1 Cor 12:4–6 as proof of this fact. In a general sense, he summarizes the whole Godhead by citing David who in “intimating that the mystery of the entire Trinity was in the creation of all things, says: ‘By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the Spirit of His mouth.’” In this creator/creature distinction, Origen truly reflects a proper respect for the “divine otherness” of the Trinity by stating that the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are to be understood as transcending all time, all ages, and all eternity. For it is the Trinity alone which exceeds the comprehension not only of temporal but even of eternal intelligence.” In addition he declares that “it is impossible . . . that any other nature than the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can live without a body, the necessity of logical reasoning compels us to understand that rational natures were indeed created at the beginning . . . for an incorporeal life will rightly be considered a prerogative of the Trinity alone. For the
nature of Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit . . . is incorruptible and eternal, it is altogether consistent and necessary that every substance which partakes of that eternal nature should last for ever, and be incorruptible and eternal . . . also a diversity is to be noted in the participation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, varying with the degree of zeal or capacity of mind.
It is then this degree of diversity that Origen will spend some time explaining.
Origen uses the inherent “goodness” of God to explain the interconnectedness of the Godhead since “the primal goodness is to be understood as residing in God the Father, from whom both the Son is born and the Holy Spirit proceeds, retaining within them, without any doubt, the nature of that goodness which is in the source whence they are derived.” God’s inherent goodness seems to be a key element which Origen draws upon as being the motivation behind the unique roles and ministries of each member of the Godhead. He draws this in regards to the human race, since “firstly, they derive their existence from God the Father; secondly, their rational nature from the Word; thirdly, their holiness from the Holy Spirit.”He may take this understanding from Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:4–6.
Understanding the Trinity appears to be one of Origen’s foundational principles as he notes that after “having made these declarations regarding the Unity of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, let us return to the order in which we began the discussion.” This is directly related to living as a Christian as he connects this understanding to “the working of the Father, which confers existence . . . by participation in Christ . . . and seeing it is by partaking of the Holy Spirit that any one is made purer and holier.” Through this unified working of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in us, in its various stages of progress, shall we be at some future time perhaps, although with difficulty, to behold the holy and the blessed life . . . the more we perceive its blessedness, the more should be increased and intensified within us the longing for the same, while we ever more eagerly and freely receive and hold fast the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Of the church fathers surveyed here, Origen is by far the most systematic when detailing the relationships within the Godhead. It is evident, however, that the origin of the Trinitarian concept was not primarily developed by a single person, but was rather developed over centuries of theological reflection which present a clear picture of three uniquely individual yet inseparable persons. From this survey it is evident that each of these church fathers had five elements that they would cover as it related to an understanding of the relationships within the Godhead by including a definition: 1) of God; 2) of Christ; 3) of the Spirit; 4) of the relationship between God and Christ; and 5) which would unify the Godhead into a Trinitarian-like formula.
All of these men at some point within their writings reveal their understanding of God the Father. Most often it was connected in a simple way to the creative initiative associated with Genesis 1:1. Christ is often brought to the forefront once their initial discourse on God the Father had been introduced. Jesus then is most readily connected to God by means of his relationship as participant in the creative acts of God seen in Colossians 1:16, as He is the Word and Son of God. As for the Spirit, He resides in the peripheral and is rarely mentioned directly. He is normally referenced in passing with regard to his role as the vehicle through which God communicates prophetically. Most of the explanation given by the church fathers regarding the interconnectedness of these relationships primarily focus on describing the nuances of how God and Christ relate to one another. Rightfully so, this leads to a great emphasis of reflection being placed on Christ’s divinity. As evidenced later at Nicea, this is the key issue at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity. Interestingly, it seems that understanding the relationship between God and Christ was of greater importance than understanding the unified relationship which would also include the Spirit. Yet when the Spirit was included, there was also a simple formula, or they went into a more detailed explanation of the unified work of the Godhead as a whole.
It is apparent that the church fathers evidenced theological growth and development as forerunners to the eventual systemization of the doctrine of the Trinity. While this progression does not necessarily follow a systematically consistent pattern, it nevertheless shows that the subject of the internal relationships amongst the Godhead was addressed with increasing intentionality. The fact that these men, among others, laid a foundation from which the council gathered at Nicaea could then be built upon is clearly evident. The forbearers’ rich tradition of theological meditation in the Word is clearly evident, highlighting the fact that theology should be continually moving us toward a deeper understanding of the great mysteries of truths revealed therein. Regardless of Origen or Nicaea’s prominence in this particular arena, it will always serve the church well to be reminded of our historical heritage through continual and consistent reflection.