We believe in God the Father, His only begotten Son Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Well said, well said, well said. Did the first Christians believe this? They certainly did! Do Christians today believe this? Indeed we do! So there is no problem, right? Wrong! During the early Christian centuries Romans asked believers, “Do you believe in one god or are you polytheists? And, by the way, if you are polytheists, would you mind throwing in our emperor as a god? He’s kind of touchy about this, and we’d all be good if you would just add him to your polytheism.”
Those early Christians stuck with “I believe in God the Father, His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.” They refused to add the part about the emperor, and that got them in hot water, actual hot water. Rather than accepting the Biblical story of God and His Son Jesus Christ, the theological class attempted to plumb the depths of God’s being and figure out how He could be three in one.
As the early Christian centuries moved along, so did the answer to the three gods in one question. Early theologians could have agreed some things are secrets that belong only to God, as in Deuteronomy 29:29. Unfortunately they decided it would be better to force Jesus and the Holy Spirit into the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” This led to some really interesting words being invented like homoousios and homoiousios. Never had the world heard such grand words. Never before did Christians have to choose between the “godhead” being an essence or a substance. The search for explanations of the Triune vision eventually led to teachings about triangles and eggs and water, as if God could somehow be compared to such things!
Theological greats like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen focused on whether or not Jesus and the Holy Spirit were co-equal to the Father or subordinate to Him. They generally agreed on subordination. As this line of theological debate continued during the second and third centuries, Tertullian pointed out this was not a particular concern of the common man – at least not yet.
“The simple, indeed, (I will not call them unwise and unlearned,) who always constitute the majority of believers, are startled at the dispensation of the Three in One, on the ground that their rule of faith withdraws them from the world’s plurality of gods to the one only true God; … They are constantly throwing out against us that we are preachers of two gods and three gods, while they take to themselves pre- eminently the credit of being worshippers of the One God.”
The first Christians simply believed in God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Tertullian was clear about this. Once again though, the theological class could not leave this simplicity alone. Some Jews considered Jesus to be a man that was the Messiah. Another faction moved to full-fledged subordinationism: the Son is less than the Father and, the Spirit is less than the Son. Others answered that Jesus and the Holy Spirit must be inserted into the Shema as one but in different modes of being.
Even though the Romans stopped persecuting Christians, Christians pitted themselves one against the other over this word or that as theologians fanned that fire. It is so important to recognize the Christian split was due to bishops wanting: 1) to protect their realm, and 2) to make their realm preeminent in the Christian world. Emperor Constantine finally had enough of this. (Much more on this in another essay.) It was disturbing the Pax Romana, and it was time to do something. Constantine called together a council of bishops to meet at Nicaea and settle the nature of the godhead once and for all in order to reestablish the peace.
The Council of Nicaea in 325 was called to anathematize subordinationism and codify some administrative details. Athanasius held that Jesus must not be less than the Father but equal with the Father. Arius argued for the Son being less than the Father claiming Tertullian and Origen. The attendees were living in the emperor’s lap of luxury and were probably not too anxious to go back home, but the party had to end. In a courtroom like setting a vote was taken, and Voila! Jesus became the same substance as God and coequal with God. The simple faith that was entrusted to us was now officially on the road to Trinitarianism. Fierce theological debates followed to answer the question of what happened to Jesus the man when He became co-equal to the Father?
Quite a few more councils and centuries went by before a full-fledged Trinity was voted into existence. It was not until 381 that Theodosius made subordinationism officially illegal. Subsequent councils hammered out concepts like homoousios, homoiousios, prosopon, hypostatic union, and other officious terms. There was much gnashing of theological teeth, and bashing of theologians’ heads, but as another millennia and a half went by, Man finally defined God the Father, Jesus His Son, and the Holy Spirit. This was a great step forward! (Or not.) No longer did we have to merely marvel and wonder at the nature of Jesus. Homoousios told us all we needed to know. Eventually a finalized creed was written that told us what to believe. We can now rest easy on the hypostatic union.
No longer can we simply say we believe in God the Father, His Son the Christ, and the Spirit as those “primitive” Christians did. We must believe in a theological abstraction called the Trinity in order to be saved, and that is why Christians to this very day need theologians.
Copyright 2021 by Greg Hallback