A historian opens the hood and takes a look at the machinery

Three Into One Won’t Go: The Mystery of the Christian Trinity

Fully loaded cargo planes lumber down the runway until they slowly and laboriously lift off. As they gain height they seem to lose mass until at 30,000 feet they appear to float lightly and effortlessly through the skies. The Christian Trinity is quite otherwise. What begins with the Gospels’ simple, clear and concrete assertion –Jesus is the son of Father Yahweh—becomes progressively more freighted and fraught as the decades pass and Christians struggle to maintain their Jewish inherited monotheism and to explain –they are forbidden by the authority of Scripture to explain away—to themselves and others what the Scriptures said, a task now infinitely complicated by their belief that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact divine and by the enhanced role they were assigning to the familiar Jewish notion of the Holy Spirit of God.

Though there was a great deal more to explore, refine and realize, the concept of a divine Trinity is defined and explained, if tersely, in the creeds, those carefully crafted statements of Christian belief, and particularly that issued at the All-Church Council convened at Nicea in 325 A.D. and revised at another such in Constantinople in 381. These were professions not of opinion but of dogma, what must be believed for one to be accounted a Christian and so destined for salvation. By the time they were composed, the Gospels’ straightforward assertions regarding Yahweh and Jesus had been enriched, or burdened, by two and a half centuries of attempts at explaining their relation to each other and of both to the Holy Spirit

The very notion of the Trinity, the Christian conceptualization of the deity as “one God in three divine Persons,” is not supplied by Scripture or revelation but is a creation, or better, a construction by later believers through a process that will be examined here. Christian beliefs regarding Jesus were under attacks by both unconvinced Jews and skeptical pagans, and some Christians, more and more of them non-Jews and most intellectuals trained in the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition, attempted to explain and defend the implications of the rapidly evolving tradition regarding Jesus.

If Scripture did not produce the Trinity, it assuredly supplied the actors, the “three Divine Persons” who were thought to constitute the triune God. The first of them is of course Yahweh, the great God of Israel (and of that first century Israelite, Jesus of Nazareth), a deity whose nature and works are described in the Hebrew Bible. The second is Jesus of Nazareth himself, the centerpiece of the Christian Gospels and better known to his followers as Jesus Messiah or Jesus Christ. And finally there is the Holy Spirit, scil. of Yahweh, once called, somewhat awkwardly in English, the “Holy Ghost” and a presence in both the Old and the New Testaments.

The first explanation of the Trinity that I received was perhaps the most satisfying, and it came from the highest levels of the Church, a parochial school nun in the Bronx. God had created the shamrock, it was explained to us miniature theologians, so that we might understand the Trinity. Was it not clear? Three distinct leaves but, look at it, one single plant! And it didn’t hurt, of course, that the shamrock was the national symbol of Ireland.

I haven’t searched the Fathers, but I wouldn’t be much surprised if a shamrock-like comparison– the Cappadocian thistle?– showed up in their considerably more sophisticated attempts at explaining the Trinity. Analogy is an easy and reliable, if sometimes lazy, way of pitching an idea, whether it’s a movie script –“Imagine Inspector Clouseau as a Western sheriff”– or a theological notion: “God is like the sun, an eternal source of undiminished powers.” Indeed, without the sun analogy to anchor it, there would likely have been no ancient metaphysics or theology.

Seeing is Believing

Theologians, religion’s explainers are enamored of analogy, but popular devotion and understanding of the Trinity is determined not so much by theology as it is by the Church’s liturgical practices. From the very beginning every Christian has been initiated into the Church by a ritual that says, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” and prays to “Our Father, who is in heaven…”, while its central liturgy, the Eucharist, is exclusively Christocentric, and the Church’s liturgical calendar devotes far more space to Sicilian saints and Irish monks than to either the Father or the Spirit, and the Trinity itself is celebrated on a single solitary Sunday.

The same is true of Christians’ imaginative refashioning of the images signified by Scripture, which are then realized and refined by what he or she sees on the walls and windows of a church, where Christ crucified and Christ enthroned, surrounded by his mother and his saints, have shaped the Christian théologie imaginaire for centuries. Christianity embraced the monotheism and much else that it inherited from the Jewish womb from which it had sprung. Not all of it, however. The dietary laws were soon discarded by means of allegorical exegesis: eating swine is not the problem; it’s acting swinishly; and God’s explicit prohibition of “graven images,” however that was interpreted, appears in the Christian tradition only as an occasional pathology called “iconoclasm,” or the “smashing of images.” On the witness of the material evidence, the Jews of Jesus’ day were not entirely or fastidiously aniconic, but a bright red line was drawn at representations of Yahweh, particularly three dimensional representations, which smacked of pagan idolatry and the prevalent and loathed Roman emperor worship.

Moses was forbidden to look upon the face of Yahweh (Ex. 33:20), but the Christians had seen the divine Jesus: they had eaten and drunk with the Lord Jesus, had watched him die, had witnessed the appearances of the resurrected Jesus and had seen him rise miraculously heavenward from the summit of the Mount of Olives. His family lived among them and now they too were believers. Though it is difficult to imagine any of Jesus’ original Jewish followers attempting a portrait, but representations of the flesh and blood Jesus appeared soon enough in the Diaspora from the hands of his Gentile converts and, one must assume, from those of his assimilated Jewish followers who, like those third century Jews who decorated the walls of their synagogue at Dura Europos with graphic scenes from the Bible, had no qualms about depicting the Son of Man in the flesh.

The Gentile world of the Diaspora was a different place from those enclaves instructed and wardened by the rabbis who emerged as the controlling figures in post-70 Judaism. Representation was commonplace and portraiture was everywhere, and in the second and third centuries, when Christian apologists and theologians were attempting to explain the Trinity, anonymous artists around the Mediterranean were making the first tentative essays toward portraying the deities in question in their places of meeting for prayer and Eucharistic sacrifice and in the catacombs, the vast underground “sleeping grounds” (koimeteria) where they buried their dead. Their first impulse, guided perhaps by their Jewish inhibitions against images, was toward pure symbolism, a fish –the Greek word ichthus was an acronym for “Jesus Christ God, Son, Savior”—or as an anchor.

Overall it is the Gospel portrait of a living, breathing human being that exerted a powerful pull on the imagining of Jesus and, with diminution of Jewish uneasiness regarding portraiture sensibilities, in the end wrested the representations of Jesus away from the symbolic and the allegorical into the domain of artistic realism. The very earliest of the “realistic” show him as a bearded young man, but soon other images began to prevail, and eventually what became the standard Jesus “type” dominated portraits of Jesus from that day to this. There were variations, of course, the suffering Jesus favored in the West and the majestic Jesus in vogue in the East, but there was no doubt that this was neither a wraith nor an idea but an individual, and individuated, human male. “God” simply, by which the Jews meant Yahweh and the Christians “the Father,” was initially shown by what was a common Jewish trope, a disembodied hand extended downward into the frame.

As for the Holy Spirit, if it was portrayed at all –the Jewish taboo at work—it was first shown as one of the three young men who appeared to Abraham at Mamre (Gen. 18:4, a favorite Trinitarian text!), but very soon the New Testament images of “like a dove” and “like tongues of fire” prevailed as representational images, and the Spirit became irretrievably depersonalized and, in a sense, the odd bird out.

The Stand-Alone Three

Representations are, however, assertions, or perhaps suggestions, but not explanations. In the beginning of the Jesus movement there were no attempts at explaining the Trinity since no one thought in terms of such a triune entity. What became the Christian Trinity first existed as parts rather than as a whole. “Father,” “Son” and Spirit” were what Jesus and his first followers talked about and thought about, all of them staples of the contemporary Jewish religious tradition, and all of them, like Sister Consuela’s shamrock, patently metaphorical expressions, in her instance botanical, in theirs, biological and physiological.

Yahweh needs no explanation to anyone in the Judeo-Christian tradition. He is the unique God of the Israelites, the Biblical creator and sustainer of the world, the deity who offered the Covenant to Abraham and his Israelite descendants who, by their acceptance, were constituted the “Chosen People” and sealed their identity from Abraham’s day to this. He was naturally the God worshipped by that latter day Israelite —they were by then called “Jews”– Jesus of Nazareth, who referred to the deity, rather unusually, as Abba, a familiar form of “Father” in Jesus’ native Aramaic.

Jesus was, on all the evidence, a historical figure, a first century craftsman—“carpenter” is the traditional descriptive—in rural Galilee. He became a disciple of the charismatic end-of-worlder John the Baptist before striking out on his own as a preacher-teacher in much the same mold as John, though with the additional claim of being the “Messiah,” the kingly figure who was to be God’s primary agent in some of the End-Time scenarios popular at the time. He was executed by the Romans in Jerusalem in 30 A.D. Shortly afterwards, some of his followers claimed to have encountered a Jesus restored to life, and they began publicly preaching that he had been raised from the dead, an event that ushered in the promised End-Time.

The term Holy Spirit derives from the Latin, spiritus, “breath”; in Hebrew it is ruah, in Greek, pneuma. It is understood as the “breath” or “vital breath” of Yahweh, a notion that appears often in the Bible, with or without the qualification of “holy.” The “spirit” was thought of as something that emanates from God and dwells within certain individuals, most notably the prophets, who were thought to be “enthused,” that is, “in-spired” by God. Yahweh’s “spirit,” which, like other of God’s attributes, his “wisdom” (hokma, sophia), for example, or his “word” (memra, logos), could be thought and spoken of as a distinct attribute, a quality that popular or poetic language endowed, in its loose fashion, with the characteristics of a “something”: thus God’s spirit become the Holy Spirit, his word was transformed into the Word, and his wisdom, Wisdom, whence by a further extension of the personification, into Yahweh’s “eldest daughter.” A later generation of rabbis had no problem of accounting his “Spirit” one of the first things created by Yahweh on the First Day.

The “Spirit” as “God’s breath” was as far as Second Temple Jews went in characterizing the Holy Sprit or describing its relationship to the deity itself. The notion was familiar to Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries: the phrase “Holy Spirit” occurs more than 100 times in the four Gospels. Though the expression is often portrayed as being Jesus’ own, it is not very easy to separate Jesus’ own understanding of the Spirit from that attributed to him by his followers. Though Christian doctrine asserts that all Jesus’ sayings in the Gospels are in fact Jesus’ sayings, most historians are not so sure. The resurrection reports brought a new understanding to Jesus’ followers, and that new understanding almost certainly leached back into their memories and accounts of Jesus and, it would seem, into Jesus’ own mouth.

Genuinely Jewish is the characterization of John the Baptist as “filled with the Spirit” from birth (Lk. 1:15). Jewish too is the report that the Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism (Mk. 1:9-11 and parr.), that Mary became pregnant through the Holy Spirit (Lk. 1:35) and that the Father will grant the Spirit to those who ask. What seems more narrowly sectarian is the Gospel’s distinction that John baptizes with water while Jesus and his followers baptize “in the Spirit” (Lk. 3:16; Acts 1:5), where the congruence of the Spirit is both a defining and validating mark of Christian initiation.
Luke’s account in Acts of the earliest days of the Christian community is filled with the workings of the Holy Spirit beginning with the event that was in effect the “baptism” of the Twelve on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came down upon them like tongues of fire to the palpable descent of the Sprit upon baptized Gentiles, a palpable event that provides the critical validation of the inclusion of non–Jews in the ekklesia and so in the New Covenant and the Kingdom.

If Yahweh and the Holy Sprit (of Yahweh) were familiar notions to Jews of Second Temple times, Jesus added a new emphasis by his somewhat unusual regard of the God of Israel as “Father,” a father both to him personally as Yahweh’s “son” and more generally to all Israel: “Our Father…” is how Jesus taught his followers to call upon God. New too was the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This was something historically associated with the biblical prophets and charismatics, but its was thought, and witnessed, by Christians descending upon the individual believers at baptism, an act that not only signaled and sealed their initiation and effected their transformation, but was now closely associated with the execution and completion of Jesus’ own mission,

Son of Man, Son of God

These are conceptual modifications of traditional Jewish religious notions regarding God and his work in the world, neither of them a radical transformation of what most Jews believed. What was radical was of course Jesus’ own role in the divine economy. There were other Messianic claimants in those troubled times, but most seem to have been political types, warrior kings who would validate Israel with the sword in the near historical future. Jesus, with his appropriation of the apocalyptic title “Son of Man,” pointed to the larger, darker stage of the End Time and to a figure larger than a mere insurrectionist captain.

It is difficult for us to grasp exactly how Jesus ‘ followers thought of this Galilean wonder-worker preacher during his own lifetime since his attested resurrection from the dead seems to have altered their perceptions in a fundamental way. They certainly did not accord him anything remotely resembling divine honors during his lifetime and, on the assumption that Jesus’ extraordinary “transfiguration,” that tantalizingly brief unveiling of the divinity for a select audience of Peter, James and John (Mk. 9:2-8 and parr.) is a post- resurrection invention, Jesus’ own manner, the mock grandiosity of his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem aside (Mk. 11: 1-11 and parr.), was restrained, even modest. Jesus, Son of God, was a realization born on Easter Sunday.

Paul and John

On all the available evidence, Paul’s letters from the 50s and the Synoptic Gospels from the 70s-90s, that realization of Jesus’ divinity, once born, never wavered among his followers. There were obvious problems figuring out the consequences of the belief that the mortal man Jesus of Nazareth was also divine, but the fact of Jesus’ divinity seems never to have been doubted. The affirmation that “Jesus Christ is Lord” echoes throughout Paul’s correspondence, and though there is plentiful explanation of what that might mean for the believers, Paul makes no effort to prove Jesus’ divinity. Nor is there any sign that this belief was a Pauline innovation, that Paul found Jesus a rabbi and turned him into the Son of God. The belief in Jesus’ divinity is something that Paul had “received,” was something that had been “handed down” to him, just as he was passing it on to others. If Jesus did not proclaim his own divinity, his followers certainly did (Phil. 2:5-6), and well before Paul.

Though he worshipped Yahweh–there is no talk of the “Father” in the letters—Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit and believed in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth; he was a Christocentric thinker rather than a Trinitarian one. Where the “Trinitarian problem,” that is, an explanation of the mutual relationship of these three entities, is first directly and forthrightly addressed is in John’s Gospel from the end of the first century. “John,” or whoever it was who wrote the Fourth Gospel, attempted to explain the characterization that was current in the Christian tradition, and may in fact have originated with Jesus himself, namely, that Yahweh, the God of Israel, and the Lord Jesus stood to one another as father to son.

John is substantially responsible for the difficulties encountered by the Christians who attempted to explain and defend why they believed in a triune God. It was not his opinions so much as the way they were presented and the way they were received. The three so-called Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke present a biography of Jesus under the rubric of “The Good News.” Each author had his own point of view, of course, but they shared the common aim of demonstrating that Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah of Israel was in fact true. They did this in the first instance by pointing out how the events of Jesus’ life explicitly fulfilled the Messianic prophecies of the Bible, including the most startlingly unlikely one of them all, Isaiah’s warning that the Chosen One would have to suffer and die. Hence too their emphasis on the miracles, Jesus’ “deeds of power,” or, as John preferred, “the signs.” John says it quite directly: “My deeds done in my Father’s name are my credentials” (Jn. 10:25).

The Synoptic Gospels are tendentious, but they are not theological. John, on the other hand, who wrote a decade or two after the others, was, if not a theologian, then a considerable theological thinker. He did not express his views in a tract, however; he wrote his own version of the “Good News” with some highly convincing historical details, but he chose to put his theology in the mouth of Jesus himself. In John’s Gospel Jesus goes on at great length about the relationship of himself to his “Father,” but those pronouncements –it seems highly unlikely that they were actually Jesus’ own—were not part of the theological dossier of Trinitarianism, like the tracts of Justin or Tertullian, but as part of the New Testament, the collection of documents that had become, by the time the Trinity was under discussion, a Christian Scripture, that is, the revealed word of God, as authoritative as the Law and the Prophets.

The pronouncements of Scripture, like those found in John’s Gospel, were not mere explanations but theologoumena, “theological facts.” It was not Origen or Athanasius who opined that Jesus must be thought of as the Word of God, but the Holy Spirit himself who inspired John to record the very words of Jesus that “I and the Father are one.” Since all of Scripture was equally true no less for the Christian than for the Jew, its pronouncements on the relationship of Father and the Son, most notably those in John’s Gospel, became axiomatic in Trinitarian discussions, whether they were expressed literally, metaphorically or, in the case of John, theologically. John 14 was not an opinion but dogma. And since the Scriptural evidence was often contradictory, it required of the Fathers not merely interpretation, but also reconciliation, making sense of “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (Jn. 14:14) and “The Father is greater than I am” (Jn. 14:25).

For the present purpose, we may disencumber John from being a vehicle for the inerrant Word of God and return him to the more modest rank of author, in this instance an author with an interesting theological point of view. John knows the Jesus biographical narrative that is first found in Mark and then is edited and expanded in Matthew and Luke, but he has a somewhat more specific agenda in mind in his own Gospel from later in that first century. It is set forth without disguise in the prologue to the Gospel, and it is detailed in the numerous discourses that John has composed for Jesus and distributed across his narrative. From its first words John’s prologue (1:1-14) identifies Jesus with the personified divine Word/Wisdom familiar from Proverbs, Wisdom and Ben Sirah, though the precise identification here is with the masculine Logos-Word rather than with the feminine Sophia-Wisdom. Nor does John shy away from the paradox: as God’s Word Jesus was instrumental in both creation and in God’s self-revelation to the world; and as Jesus of Nazareth, “the Word become flesh” (Jn. 1:14).

There are then two Jesuses in what is not always a perfect equilibrium. There is the “historical” Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels, a wonder-worker, to be sure, but an unmistakable flesh and blood popular preacher from Galilee; and there is John’s Jesus, the theologically-filtered eternal Word of God. The first, the mortal Galilean, might have been recognized as a prophet “like Moses” (the Muslim solution to the “Jesus problem”) or could even have “become divinized,” by the Father’s “adoption” at his baptism, for example, or even more plausibly, and more incredibly, as signaled by his resurrection from the dead through the power of the Father. But it did not happen so: it was as John put: the Word became flesh, and that mortal creature was truly and fully God.

Paul’s Christology is expressed in his own orbiter dicta: “Believe what I say because I am an Apostle. I have seen the Lord.” John’s theology is literally Christological: it is often placed in the mouth of Jesus himself. There is general agreement that the author of John’s Gospel had access to authentic tradition on Jesus and that his Gospel presents information about Jesus’ life that is genuinely historical. There is a similar agreement that Jesus’ “discourses” as recorded in that Gospel are not transcriptions of Jesus’ own preaching and teaching but were composed by “John ” as theological meditations on Jesus’ mission and message.

But the Johannine discourses are no mere theological reflections. They are, as now seems likely, responses in part to contemporary Jewish reaction, contemporary to “John,” that is, not to Jesus, to what seemed in their eyes a violation of Jewish monotheism: “He made himself equal to God,” they are made to say (Jn. 5:18).

In response, John takes Jesus’ own characterization of Yahweh as “father” and himself as “son” and turns it at refracting angles –“I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (Jn. 14:10)– in an attempt to illustrate, if not to explain, how the two could be at the same time one and other. And John adds a nuance to the traditional Holy Spirit. He calls it an “advocate” (parakletos), that is, one who speaks on behalf of another. According to John, the Spirit “proceeds from the Father” (Jn. 15:26) and will be sent by the Father, or by Jesus “from the side of the Father,” to instruct his followers “about everything I have told you” (Jn. 15:25; 14:26).

This is not the high theology of a later generation of Christians who changed the linguistic register from the metaphorical but concrete language of the Gospels to the technospeech of the Greek philosophical schools where substance, essence and hypostases became the currency of Trinitarian transaction. But if theology is at base an attempt at explanation, then John’s late first century expansion of the givens of the Jesus tradition, and his introduction of a new figure, that of the “advocate,” as a functional gloss on “spirit,” is assuredly theology.

The Lord

The Evangelist John, whoever he was, was Jewish. Everything from the Greek of all the basic texts to the Anglicization of the names –James for Iakobos and Yaakov, John for Yohannan and even Jesus for Yeshua— distracts from the identity of both the context and characters of the Jesus movement and of nascent Christianity, which were thoroughly and entirely Jewish. And that latter characterization works its own distortion in turn. Those first century Jews of Palestine and their Jewishness were quite distinct from the modern, medieval and rabbinic Temple-less and Diaspora Jews that followed them, and different as well from Abraham and Moses, David and Ezra and their Biblical contemporaries. Equally different among themselves were Jesus, the High Priest and Pontius Pilate, though they are portrayed in the Gospels all speaking the same language and in much the same register: prosopopoeia, the rhetorical art of suiting a character’s diction to his person, was not a concern of Jesus’ Evangelist biographers.

But the author John of course speaks like John, and the authorial voice that we hear at the outset of his Gospel is very deliberately Jewish. “In the beginning,” the Gospel starts with the immediately recognizable opening words of the Torah. The reader is quite deliberately made to stand at the beginning of Genesis and so too at the very moment of Creation, an act that is effected in both the Bible’s account and John’s by nothing more than God’s word: “And He said, ‘Let there be…and there was…’.”

This was not John’s invention, this notion that Yahweh’s creation was accomplished through his “word.” The Bible’s Hebrew term is memra, which is rendered in Greek as logos, the latter a vocable that had a broad and rich semantic field that ranged from “word” to “speech” to “reasonable account” and finally to “reason” itself. John was not, however, thinking the Hellenic logos in the first instance, but rather the Hebrew memra, the “word” of God that was already personified, like the Biblical and post-Biblical “Wisdom,” into God’s “Word,” that is, the externalization of God’s command and —and perhaps here the Hellenic influence begins to be felt— the embodiment of God’s plan.

For many Jews, then, the opening of John’s prologue had a more than familiar ring. It not only carried the Jewish reader back to the opening of Genesis; it also summoned up the rich imagery of other Jewish writings where Yahweh’s personified Word and Wisdom –often a distinction without a difference—is hymned in rhapsodic terms. And though John may not have intended it, the prologue of his Gospel raised different echoes for some, themes that had recently been sounded in Egyptian Alexandria.

There were current among post-Exilic Jews two strands of development of the divine characterization that is called in the Greek of John’s Gospel and elsewhere, God’s Logos, and is rendered in English as his “Word.” The first, already described, is a purely parochial affair whereby some Jewish writers, under a growing sense of the unique transcendence of God, his supernatural “otherness,” began to delegate some of Yahweh’s attributes, his wisdom, for example or his commanding and creative word, the “Let there be…” of Genesis, to the personification of those qualities.

The description of the divine attributes was both poetical and allegorical: these personified abstractions were said to be Yahweh’s divine “offspring,” his “firstborn.” His Word (the masculine Logos) might be thought of as his “son,” and his Wisdom (the feminine Sophia) as his “daughter.” They antedated the creation of the world, it was hymned, and indeed were instrumental in its coming into being. These rhapsodic exaltations of God’s Word and Wisdom are found chiefly in the books called Proverbs, the Wisdom of Solomon and Ben Sirah or Ecclesiasticus, the first already in the Hebrew Bible and all three in the more widely read Greek version called the Septuagint.

The second strand in the development of the Logos concept among the Jews has its origins in Greek speculation about the High God of the Greek philosophers, the One, who, like his Jewish counterpart, was growing progressively unique and more transcendent in the minds of the intelligentsia. For many, the rank polytheism of the myths was yielding, in the last centuries before the Common Era, to a henotheism that raised Zeus high above his diminished fellows of the Olympian pantheon. And it was not Apollo or Athena who were Zeus’ agents for and in the world; rather, it was his personified Word or Logos. It was referred to at times as if were divine but other than Zeus, something that proceeded or emanated from him, a creative and intelligent force that was disseminated in the cosmos.

Diaspora Jews were, in varying degrees, heirs to this Hellenic intellectual tradition with its “divine” Logos subset, and at least one Jewish theologian made extensive use of it in a series of reworkings of the early books of the Torah. Philo of Alexandria, a slightly older contemporary of Jesus, though the product of a very different, profoundly Hellenized and urban milieu in Egypt, gave the Greek Logos a central place in his account of creation. It –never quite “he,” however—stands just below Yahweh as his eldest offspring. The Logos is God’s image and, like the Biblical Wisdom, is his mediator in both creation and revelation.

John’s Prologue

Philo’s Logos, like the “speech” of its Greek prototype, is understood to be internal to Yahweh as his ideas and yet externalized as God’s creative energy. There is no further explanation of how this could be so: as often, the analogy, in this instance to human speech, was reckoned sufficient to support the thesis. The same is true in John’s Prologue, where the “Word” is asserted to be both with God and to be God as well as being God’s instrument in creation. The Stoics and Philo would have concurred with John, at least as far as verse 14, where the Evanglist declares, “and the Word became flesh.” John’s Logos is not only personified and incorporated into the work of God, as both the Greeks and Philo understood it, but John here identifies it with an individual human being, Jesus of Nazareth, a transformation infinitely remote from anything a Stoic, a Platonist or even Philo might imagine.

John was not a philosopher, Greek or otherwise, not a Philo, the Alexandrian Jew who thoroughly plowed the Greek field of logos, nor even a Jewish theologian, but a biographer of Jesus who thought theologically about his subject. His Gospel is formally not unlike the Synoptic biographical model pioneered by Mark, though his point of view differs in many respects, and not least in its opening prologue (Jn. 1:1-14 or, according to some 1-16).

Luke opened his Gospel with an authorial statement (Lk. 1: 1-4), in this instance of a professional historian –John’s own brief claim to authenticity as an eye-witness is buried at the end of the work (Jn. 21:24)—but John’s Gospel begins with an unpacking of the opening of the Genesis account of creation: “In the beginning was the Word” –we must assume personification here— “and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (Jn. 1:1). Not every Jew thought in those terms, but among those who did there would certainly be no disquiet with John’s identification of Yahweh and His own Word, no matter how language, generally poetic and metaphorical language, seemed to distinguish them. John then stretches the Word notion, again in a way that would trouble no Jewish conscience: God’s Word is also the principle of life and light (Jn. 1:4-5).

Suddenly at verse 6 of the Prologue there is an abrupt shift from theology to history, as we pass from the Word to a preacher called John the Baptist who came to lead, like the earlier prophets of the Jewish tradition, to the true Light-Word. The identity of the Word, who was “with God” and “was God,” is finally revealed in verse 14, in what must have been to Jewish sensibilities the most shocking statement in the whole of the New Testament: “And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” It was one thing for Jews of a poetical or imaginative bent to speak of Yahweh’s Word or Wisdom as if it were something (or someone) apart from Him, while always carefully insisting, as John did here in his opening verse, that they were really one and the same, and quite another to identify the personification with a flesh and blood human individual, in this instance, a certain Jesus, a carpenter in the Galilean village of Nazareth.

Speaking Allegorically

The submerged polemic of John’s Gospel, where the Gospel’s intended audience appears to be Jewish believers under attack by their unconvinced coreligionists, yields to something different in the following decades. The assumed polemic of the Fourth Gospel becomes explicit in the Dialogue with the Jew Trypho of a converted pagan philosopher named Justin. The Dialogue was composed in about 160 and professes to record a debate between Justin and a rabbi named Trypho. It is a literary debate and so very one-sided –“talking at” rather than “talking with” Trypho, as it has been described—where Trypho occasionally concedes and occasionally objects in the manner of one of Plato’s interlocutors but never mounts a full scale argument against either Jesus’ Messiahship or his divinity.

Though reared as a pagan and trained as a philosopher, Justin argues Scripturally with Trypho. He produces and unpacks an impressively wide range of Biblical texts to make the case for Jesus’ Messiahship (Dialogue, 48-54), his divinity and, indeed, for the thesis that God is triune (55-62). Among his proof-texts for the latter Justin cites the crucial appearance of thee “angels” to Abraham at Mamre (Gen. 19:22-28).

Justin did not, of course, invent this way of making a case. Like all their fellow Jews, Jesus and his early followers interpreted the Bible, whether they were reading it in its original Hebrew or in the Greek Septuagint translation that was in common use among the Jews of the “Dispersion.” They read and understood the Bible literally, particularly in its legal prescriptions and prohibitions; and they read it, to borrow a term of art from the contemporary Hellenic culture, “allegorically,” that is, with the understanding that the text might have a meaning “other” than the one that lay on the plain surface. Isaiah and the Psalms and Proverbs might well be speaking prophetically of the future, it was thought, as well as hymning the present; that not every “angel” is an angel, it was thought, and the Genesis story of Abraham and his sons Isaac and Ishmael was more than an account of a dust-up in a sheepherder’s tent. Paul for one saw this latter for what it was: “This is an allegory” (Gal. 4: 24).

Allegorical interpretation, the conviction that Scripture is saying one thing and (also) on occasion signally another, is the cornerstone of the Christian brief for Jesus as the promised Messiah of Israel. Jesus of Nazareth, the Christians argued, fulfilled all of what had been identified by them, and others before them, as Scripture’s Messianic prophecies. The Gospels, and particularly Matthew, are filled with such “proofs,” and well into the Renaissance, when apparently they stopped talking to each other, Christians and Jews had lively public debates on whether the Bible had in fact foretold the Messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Jewish exegesis of Scripture, and its early Christian subset, was freewheeling, imaginative and very often sectarian. But it invariably read the Bible from the outside in. The understanding was that God, or his inspiring Spirit, intended to convey more than was inscribed on the written page, and it was the task or, as we might think, the opportunity of the interpreter to uncover that “other” meaning. What they never did, Jews and Christians alike, was to read the Bible from the inside out, with the recognition that the text was an artifact and that its meaning was (also) determined by the circumstances of its composition, its historical and literary milieu. Genesis and Isaiah, Deuteronomy and Proverbs, Daniel and the Psalms might all be read differently by Jesus and his contemporaries, but not, as we might think, because the authors had different intents or were writing in different registers, but only because the interpreters had different agendas.

Justin’s Dialogue is an exegetical tour de force that shows very clearly the extent and sophistication of the Christians’ use of Scriptural interpretation. It shows too how John’s vision of Jesus as the Word of God was being extended. For Justin no less than John, Jesus is the Biblical Word, otherwise known as his Wisdom, his Glory and even his Son (Dialogue 61). Similarly, Justin echoes John in his assertion that as God’s Word, Jesus pre-existed from the beginning of creation. But what John had simply asserted, Justin now argues by moving to the center of the discussion the text of Proverbs 8: 21-36: “The Lord begot me from all eternity,” a position it would maintain for as long as Scripture constituted an argument in theology.

A Turn to Philosophy

In addition to the Dialogue, which reflects the growing rift between the followers of Jesus and the majority of Jews, Justin wrote two Apologies that look outward to the larger Mediterranean world where the Christians were beginning to be understood as somehow different from Jews and where they were attracting increased, and increasingly hostile, scrutiny from Roman authorities who regarded them as socially troublesome and so politically dangerous. Justin’s Apologies, like others of the type in the second century attempted, not always gently, to dispel Roman fears and demonstrate that the charges against Christians were baseless.

But Christianity attracted more than legal attention. It had aroused the interest of certain of the Greco-Roman intelligentsia who looked upon the Christians with disdain and perhaps a degree of alarmed incredulity. For their part, the Christians, who now counted converted members of that same intelligentsia among their own number, answered back, and their Apologies undertook to demonstrate by rational argument that Christianity represented the true worship of God.

Just as the Jewish Christians had taken up Biblical texts that spoke of God’s personified Word and Wisdom to make their case for Jesus’ divinity to their fellow Jews, so now the more recent Gentile converts to Christianity began to avail themselves of the Stoic doctrine of Logos, unspoken as God’s eternal ideas, expressed as God’s guidance and governance of the cosmos, and a notion shared or at least understood by the Christians’ pagan adversaries. They attempted to demonstrate that Jesus Christ, now a name rather than a Jewish title meaningless to pagans, was nothing less than that same Logos, God’s Creative Word and God’s Divine Reason broadcast into the world.

The second century Christian Apologies were highly rhetorical tracts rather than systematic treatises, but they were nonetheless theological in the sense that that word was understood in the Greco-Roman world, rational discourse about God. They did not hesitate to attack and mock paganism –-the Greek myths provided an attractive target— with the weapons of rhetoric, but their authors were, many of them, trained philosophers and, as it turned out, Christianity’s first theologians.

What the Apologists did in defense of their faith against Roman injustice and philosophical denial was to broaden the lexical repertoire of Christian discourse. It was done not by deliberate choice or as part of a dialectical strategy but simply, and perhaps inevitably, as a reflex of their own cultural formation. Henceforward the Christian voice in the Greco-Roman literary conversation, where Scriptural arguments did not avail, had available the linguistic and conceptual instruments of the Greek philosophical tradition, which was in effect a central element in the high science of the day.

The Scriptural Givens

Christian belief was grounded not in axioms but in the pronouncements of Scripture. For Christians this was, in the first instance, the Hebrew Bible (though universally read and studied in its Septuagint Greek translation) and, increasingly, the Greek works that were coming together as the “New” Covenant or Testament. The latter described the foundational Jesus event chiefly within the narrowly Jewish concept of Messiahship, and Jesus himself seemed most comfortable with his identification with God’s agent of the End Time referred to as the “Son of Man” in the Book of Daniel (7:13; 8:15), a designation that fell out of currency soon after Jesus’ death.

For their part, the Gospels preferred a Father-Son pairing of Yahweh and Jesus, a notion doubtless introduced by Jesus himself, though his emphasis seems to have been on Yahweh as Father rather than on his own divine Sonship. The Synoptic Gospels do occasionally put that latter claim in the mouth of Jesus and his contemporaries, but the accuracy of that attribution is belied by the narrative itself: there is no indication in the Gospels that the Apostles or anyone else treated Jesus as God or as a god during his lifetime, that they regarded him in any sense the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. What Jesus’ followers believed, a belief shared with all Jews, was that there was a kind of Holy Dyad consisting –-without asking how— of Yahweh and his Holy Spirit, and in addition they held, now unlike most of their Jewish contemporaries, that Jesus of Nazareth would, as the prophets had foretold and Jesus himself claimed, return as God’s principal agent in the End Time.

A New Perspective

At Jesus’ unexpected, and unexpectedly inglorious death, followed by his miraculous and equally unexpected resurrection, the earlier figuration of Jesus, which was at best uncertain in the minds of his followers, had to be rethought and revised. How rapid and thorough was the revision to Christ the Lord, “at whose name every knee should bow” (Phil. 2:10), is on full display in the letters of Paul a scant twenty years after Jesus’ death. At the outset of the Acts of the Apostles, the earliest extant account of the origins of a “Christer” community, written in the 80s or 90s, the divinity of Jesus is simply assumed; if it is argued, it is merely by asserting the eyewitness testimony to his post-burial appearances. The point seems indisputable: Jesus was not worshipped during his lifetime, nor did references to him as a “son” of Yahweh raise any serious problems for those who encountered him; but immediately after his death, this “Son of Man” was not merely venerated as the soon to return Messiah of Israel, but was worshipped as the “Son of God.”

Jesus as “Son” and Yahweh as his “Father “ and the biological metaphor that lay behind those designations was the primary Scriptural given of all Christian discussion and explanation of the ontological identification, the “what” rather than the “who” of Jesus of Nazareth. Greek theologians did not have to much reckon with or refute the mythological portrayal of the gods in fashioning their own theology: the narrative “truths” of the myths could simply be set aside or allegorized to taste in favor of the demonstrable truth of philosophy. For believers like the Jews and their Messianic Christian subset, the matter was quite different: Scripture was the “high” truth, and its pronouncements not merely served, like Euclid’s axioms, to ground all that followed, but it validated and authorized it as well. Its every line was equally and unqualifiedly true and rendered all other “truths” at best derivative –-Plato borrowed from Moses– or, at worst, false.

The first century of Christianity was shaped by Mark, Matthew and Luke’s biographical portraits of Jesus in their Gospels, plus John’s meditation on them in his own Gospel and Paul’s letters, composed before there were written Gospels, in which he uncovered and enlarged the implications of the Jesus event itself. In the second century those same Gospels and letters, along with other writings from the same era, were in the process of being assembled by the various Christian congregations, consensually if informally, into what came to be known as the New Covenant or Testament. That collection of books was soon elevated to the level of “Scripture”; it had achieved among Christians the same authoritative status as that long enjoyed by what they were beginning to call the “Old Testament,” that is, the Hebrew Bible (which was of course being read in its Greek version by the Christians and a great many Jews).

The second century also marked the transformation of what had been merely an assertion of Christian belief and their reading of the Bible directed at Jewish audiences of believers and prospective believers into a forthright explanation of the heart of those beliefs to non-Jews. The Gentile intelligentsia had begun to bring to bear against the Christian faith the weapons of a sophisticated skepticism. The primary Christian response, now voiced by men trained in the same intellectual tradition as the skeptics, was, as noted, to appropriate and extend the Stoic doctrine of an internal and external Word and to identify Jesus with it. The Stoic Logos-Word had also “been made flesh” in that, though eternally immanent as God’s Thought, it was externalized as God’s creative Speech and embedded discretely in the world for its guidance as “seminal reason.”

If the fit was not perfect, it was effective. And a discussion at this level of philosophical abstraction largely finessed any interest in the rather homely, earthbound and parochial career of Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth. “There is no science of the individual,” Aristotle had ruled, a principle that might have driven a stake through the heart of Christian claims for conceptual status for the very individual Jesus of Nazareth, a paradox that John had simply buried in the silence between verses 13 and 14 of his Prologue, or, as seems to have occurred, thought it beyond the ken of rational discourse.

With Philo, John and the Stoics leading the way, the Christian appropriation and refashioning of a Logos-Word theology to explain Jesus’ relationship with the High God was attractive and effective. But there were other instruments in the Greco-Roman philosophical tool-kit that might also prove useful to Christians and they soon began to unpack them.

As Christianity spread among many peoples and cultures, all of them increasingly remote from the Jewish matrix of the movement, doctrinal discussion and debate became more diverse, more heated and more uncertain. And many of the participants were no longer speaking the language of Scripture but that of contemporary Hellenism. Late second century theologians like the Greek Irenaeus (130-202 AD) and the Latin Tertullian (160-225 AD), for example, were fully at home with the Stoic distinction between an interior and exterior Word, between God’s ideas and God’s speech, and Irenaeus began to explore that latter.

It was in God’s creative and providential activity, Tertullian maintained, in what he called the divine economy, that the three elements could be recognized as distinct: God the Father or the divine ground, his creative Word and his guiding Spirit. The three, what Tertullian called, for the first time, the “Trinity,” who –or which– lay concealed within the Godhead stood revealed and discernible in God’s activity, “capable of being counted,” as he put it. It is the “mystery of the economy,” Tertullian said, that “distributes” or “extends” the unity of the Godhead into a Trinity, ”setting forth Father, Son and Spirit as three.”

But three what? Aspects or individuals? Persons or things? The Stoic distinction between an internal and external divine Word, grounded as it was in the transparent analogy to human thought that becomes materialized, “made flesh,” so to speak, as speech, was a powerful underpinning to the identification of Jesus as God’s divine Word, but it said nothing about the ontological status of the Word and the Spirit, the former described in the Christian Scripture as God’s “son” and the latter, less helpfully, “like a dove” (Mk. 1:10) or “like tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3).

Irenaeus had proposed one answer. In an attempt to preserve the unity of the Godhead, Tertullian suggested that the explanation lay in the notion of oikonomia, “governance” or, here more specifically and technically, “process.” We must think that the nature of God is revealed in the activity of God. It was he who as the Father, planned the history of the cosmos from its creation to its final redemption, the first the legacy of Gen.; the second, the product of Jewish thinking about the End Time and the salvation/redemption of Israel through the agency of the Messiah.

For the execution of his plan the Father used the Son and the Spirit, “like two hands,” –-another analogy mischievous than helpful—: the first to execute his plan, which embraced both creation and redemption, while the Spirit did the follow-up: the Spirit fostered, nourished and guided what the Father had planned and the Son had executed.

This is what came to be called “economic Trinitarianism” whereby the triune nature of God is unfolded to us in the creation and salvation of God’s world. It is there that we “discover” both the Son and the Spirit. But if this paradigm neatly explains the function of the Christian “givens” of Son and Spirit, it says nothing about their relationship to the primary category, “God,” nor does it speak to the problem of “immanent Trinitarianism,” how these three deities could constitute one single God. There were common sense answers to that, to be sure. One attractive one was that the three were all “aspects” or “modes” of God, or better, the Godhead, an explanation that did not undermine the individuality of Yahweh, whose personthood was firmly anchored in the Bible and a millennium of tradition. As for the Spirit, it had long been comfortable as a “mode” or in some other ambiguous place behind the expression “in a manner of speaking” and it would doubtless continue to do so in this construction. But this modal explanation did raise serious questions about the existential status, the reality of Jesus of Nazareth.

“Godhead” underlines one of the besetting problems facing all expositors of the doctrine of the Trinity: how to distinguish, either in their own minds or in their public pronouncements, between the reality called God in which all three participated and the “Father,” the first among the three. Christians could not quite decide whether the Father was God simpliciter, as Yahweh certainly was in the Bible and he may have been for many Christians who reserved the title “God” (theos) for the Father, while Jesus was called “Lord” (kyrios): so Paul in 1 Cor. 8:5-6: “For us there is one God, the Father…and one Lord…”; or whether was one of the three subsumed under the rubric “God,” which would be, in this construal, the undifferentiated substance in which all participated.

The English word “Godhead,” was the term used in the King James Version of the New Testament to translate “the divine” (Acts 17:29), the abstract “divinity” (Rom. 1:20) and, most suggestively, “the divinity” in the expression “the fullness of the divinity” in the Pauline Colossians (2:9). It neatly papers over the problem by being both abstract enough to denote God(ness) pure and simple and concrete enough to suggest the Father-Yahweh. But it is an English palliative and obviously not a solution for the dilemmas of the early Christians.

Two Gods?

In almost all Christian discussions of the Trinity there lurks the uncomfortable suspicion of Binatarianism, that what is really at issue here are not three divine persons but two, the New Testament’s Father and Son. The suspicion arises of course due to the ambiguous status of the Holy Spirit. The person and power of God, the creator and “manager” of the universe, is described in great detail in the Bible –there is even a modern “biography” of Yahweh– and he is one of the critical pillars of Judaism and thus of Christianity in its wake. The person and personality of Jesus of Nazareth as set forth in the Gospels is, in like sense, the central conviction of Christianity. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is described in both the Bible as if it was independent of, or at least other than, Yahweh. No Jews believed, however, that Yahweh’s Spirit was a real God other than Yahweh or worshipped it as such. The profile of the Holy Spirit is somewhat sharper in the New Testament, and though it also appears somewhat more effectively active and more remote from the Father, the New Testament Spirit remains nonetheless a notion rather than either a person or a personality on the model of the Bible’s Yahweh or the Gospels’ Jesus.

The relationship among the three was asymmetrical to begin with, two strongly limned individuals who are further defined by the Christians as “father” and “son,” and a third force or energy, literally “a breath,” that is described as descending upon individuals “like a dove” or “like tongues of fire.” The closest we come to a personal characterization are what John describes as Jesus’ impassioned remarks (Jn. 14:15-7; 16:7-11) that at his departure he will send an “advocate” (parakletos), “the spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father” (Jn. 15:26), and who will validate and continue Jesus own work of salvation.

Or Three Modes?

The North African theologian Tertullian attempted to address the issue of the existential identity of the three, and like many before and after him, including Scripture itself, he resorted to analogy. Father, Son and Spirit, he suggested, stand one to the other like a spring, a river and a channel drawn off from it; or a root, its branch and a bud: three forms or manifestations of a single water flow, a single plant. Political sovereignty likewise remains one even when it is exercised by coordinated agencies. This is clever and illuminating and enlarging, but in this instance the notion carried along in Tertullian’s stream, and by the entire “economy” argument as well, that God is revealed as triune in his activity in the world, led some to embrace what seemed like a rather nice conclusion: that the Son and the Spirit were, so to speak, epiphenomena, aspects of the Godhead in action or, as some put it, God’s modes of self-expression.

That God’s nature is revealed in his actions was a comprehensible way of thinking about the paradoxically “triune” God of the monotheistic, as they claimed, Christians. This “modalism” as it was inevitably called –early Christianity had a positively Linnaean fervor for the naming and categorizing heresies—swung the pendulum in what was, in the late second and early third century, a full-scale Trinitarian debate, back toward the autonomy and singularity of the One True God, but at the expense, their opponents claimed, of the divine reality of God’s Word, Jesus of Nazareth.

Tertullian was no modalist, however, and if in defense of the unity of the three he insisted that God was a single substance (essentia) that is, however, manifested in three “persons” (personae). It is not an argument but rather an explanation in which he resorted not to the concrete metaphors of Scripture but to the abstract technical language of philosophy. Essentia, in Greek ousia, was a well-worn term to describe the “whatness” of a thing, the internal principle that made it what it was.

Like everyone else who approached the question, Tertullian was engaged in a wrestling match with language, in his case Latin, in an attempt to explain the inexplicable. Father, Son and Holy Spirit were, in his words, distincti but not diversi, discreti but not separati. His most lasting contribution to Trinitarian discourse was, however, persona. It was Tertullian’s choice for expressing the individual reality of the three, and more specifically of the Son and Spirit since the Bible presented a full-blooded and indelible portrait of “the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” It was an interesting choice and, like almost every step over this heavily mined terrain, fraught with problems. In Roman law a “persona” was a fully competent individual, someone with standing before the law. It’s Greek equivalent, prosopon, was a mask, the representation of a character in a drama.

Modalism was not an outlandish solution to the insoluble problem of a God that was One and yet somehow three. Religious thinkers among the Greeks and Romans were as little committed to a florid polytheism, as were the Jews and Christians. All three preferred a kind of mitigated henotheism that looked to a single supreme High God, Zeus or Yahweh, attended, assisted and occasionally thwarted by a host of intermediaries, the morally ambiguous daimones of the Greeks or, for the more literary minded pagans, the demoted Olympians of the myths; and for the Jews and the Christians in their wake, the angels on the one hand and Satan and his diabolical henchmen on the other. Or, for a more elevated henotheism, the most important of those intermediaries, Apollo and Athena, for example, or the Word and Wisdom, could be construed as aspects or modes of the supreme and uncontested One who was their creator and begetter.

Modalism was, however, a rather obvious form of subordinationism, and though it worked for the pagans and equally well for the Jews who could live with what was readily recognized through all the poetical and hyperbolic smoke of Wisdom and Ben Sirah as the “soft” reality of God’s Word and God’s Wisdom, it did not work for the Christians. They might well have come to terms with a Jewish-style “soft” Holy Spirit, but the Christians accepted and, though tempted, continued to embrace the very un-Jewish “hard” reality of the Word in the form of a divinized Jesus of Nazareth.

Defending the One

The irrevocable “hardening” of the Jesus-Word was a function of the process that first appears in Justin and the Apologists and is on full display in Tertullian: the discussion and explanation of the status of Jesus with respect to Yahweh, now simply “God,” in terms of the current philosophy. This was no mere translation; it was the substitution of one language for another, akin to the conversion of geography into geometry or, more radically yet, into a table of coordinates. The Scripture was being read in Greek in the second century, but it was a translated Greek that kept the substance if not always the flavor of the concrete and metaphorical language of the Hebrew and Aramaic original; the new theological discourse which, despite Tertullian’s Latin example, was chiefly in Greek, an artificial and technical but nonetheless aboriginal Greek that issued from the minds of Greek philosophers struggling to put words to their new thoughts. Tertullian’s Trinitarian persona soon yielded to the more pointed Greek hypostasis: Father, Son and Holy Spirit was each a single, fully constituted existent, and at the same time “consubstantial” (homoousios) or “of the same substance,” that is they were all, and equally, “divinity.”

The lumbering “consubstantiality” describes another process that was underway. Both the Greek’s “reason” in the form of philosophy and the Jews’ revelation enshrined in Scripture laid what appeared to be exclusive claim to truth. Philo was the first to claim consubstantiality for the two, though with the not unexpected suggestion that it was Moses who was the “father” and Plato who was the “son.” His exposition took the form of an exposition of the Torah in terms of the Platonized Stoicism of his day, Moses read through the eyes of Plato, so to speak. Not many of his fellows Jews were impressed, but many later Christians, who were raised on the same blend of philosophy, were. Among them was another Alexandrian, Origen (c. 185-254), who simply accepted the consubstantiality of reason and revelation as a matter of fact.


Though a later generation of Christian scholars found him a trifle over-allegorical on occasion, Origen was an accomplished interpreter of Scripture, Jewish and Christian, but in one major work, On First Principles, he undertook to dislodge the givens of revelation from their Scriptural setting and reconstitute them into a very Hellenic theological system. It was the first fully formalized example of a sacred theology, an edifice of reason constructed on the foundations of revelation, a dwelling that Christianity has comfortably inhabited from Origen’s day to this. Formally Philo had composed a philosophical midrash on Scripture; Origen’s was a summa theologiae.

Origen’s conceptual framework for his presentation of his doctrine of God, the Word and the Spirit in Book One of On First Principles was the current Platonism in particular vogue in Alexandria where he received his intellectual formation. The Platonists’ world was one of necessary hierarchy, with the transcendent One, the Monad, at its remote top and ranged beneath it –the personified “he” seems out of place here—were not its “creatures,” which might imply a discrete act of the will, but the products of the One’s eternal radiation or emanation of its goodness. For Origen the Scripture’s Yahweh/Father is that sublime Monad, the “true God.” He is not of course the activist, sometimes loving, sometimes irascible Yahweh of the Bible, but unmistakably closer to Jesus’ more remote “Father who is in heaven,” though it is difficult to imagine either the Platonists’ or Origen’s God having a care for the fallen sparrow or giving thought to the lilies of the field.

God’s first-begotten, his first emanation, is the Word, a spiritual being like the Father but now –here we are very far indeed from Scripture– the matrix of the passage from the perfect simplicity of the One to the multiplicity of the world that follows. Finally, the Holy Spirit, for whose necessary existence and function Origen must turn to Scripture: just as the Father is revealed in the Son, so our access to the mysteries of the Son is through Scripture alone, the texts inspired by the Holy Spirit of God who, like the Son, proceeds eternally from the Father.

It is not easy, nor is it perhaps necessary; to say whether the system that unfolds in On First Principles is Platonism adjusted to Scripture or Scripture supported by Platonism. It is Platonism that imposes a hierarchical structure on Origen’s Trinity –the Son is “less” than the Father and the Holy Spirit “less” than both—while Scripture’s insistence that “the Word became flesh” rests materially and very uneasily in the spiritual landscape of On First Principles.

Origen was not afraid of language, though he had to be careful with it. He was willing to concede that on the Christian view there were “two Gods” and that Jesus was in a sense a “second God. ” Even more strikingly, he seemed ready to admit, though he never used the precise expression, that the Holy Spirit might be regarded as a “third God,” inferior with respect to the Father and the Son, just as the Son was with respect to the Father, who was for Origen “the fountainhead of deity.” Tertullian’s stream analogy was exacting its price: the Father was where the “water” came from.

If On First Principles was an attempt to lay out in systematic fashion what Origen describes as “the elementary and foundational principles,” including what was critical for Christians and for Origen in particular, the principles of Scriptural exegesis, it was also an argument. It begins by laying down in the preface certain axiomatic doctrines that represent “the tradition of the Church and the Apostles,” which the latter had laid down “in the plainest terms.” These Origen proposes to explain in detail so as to produce “a single body of doctrine” by means of the Scriptures on the one hand and, on the other, “such conclusions as…follow logically from them as rightly understood.”

Origen was clearly writing for his fellow Christians, but he was aware of a larger audience reading over their shoulder. At the opening of the third century, Origen belonged, to one of the preeminent intellectual institutions on the ancient world, the Platonic school at Alexandria. Two centuries earlier Philo had listened there through the windows, so to speak, to its philosophers, but Origen was a fully matriculated student who sat at the feet of those masters before becoming a master himself at the still new school of Christian doctrine there, the first of its kind.

“You are My Son…”

Procession or begetting, however the relationship between the God of Israel and Jesus of Nazareth was expressed, it involved a passage from -> to, with the unavoidable implication of the priority, ontological, chronological or simply sequential, of the former. If it is said of the Word that he was “begotten from all eternity,” the statement covers but does not conceal the essential priority of the Scriptures’ “Father” to his “Son” and the theologians’ begetter to the begotten. This issue of equality vs. dependence never arose for the Jews with respect to Yahweh and his “firstborn” Word or Wisdom of Proverbs or Ben Sira because they never felt the need to explain what everyone understood was a metaphor, a manner of speaking. The Jews stayed well clear of hypostases and of turning poetry into science, pretty talk into reality. Those early Christian Jews could not follow suit without diminishing the divinity or the actuality of Jesus. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, continued to linger in the penumbra of its Jewish metaphorical origins.

If Father and Son were both actual, that is, “persons” or “hypostases” and, as the Christians believed, divine, both right reason and common sense demanded that the Father enjoy a degree of superiority or at least priority vis a vis his Son. This much some Christians exploring this vast uncharted terrain seemed reluctantly willing to concede. Others were somewhat bolder in pushing the logic of Scriptural passages thought to refer to Jesus, and in particular Proverbs 8:22-23 which asserted that “the Lord created me [Wisdom] the first of his works, long ago before all else that he made. I was formed in the earliest times, at the beginning, before the earth itself.” Had not the Lord said “This day it is I who have begotten you” (Ps. 2:7), and had not John reported Jesus himself saying in unmistakable terms that “The Father is greater than I” (Jn. 14:28)?

Church tradition identifies the chief logic-pusher as Arius (250-336 AD), a cleric of Alexandria, though it was by no means a matter of a single voice expressing an implausible opinion: this was an issue that threatened to tear apart the Christian Commonwealth. Since the Word was begotten, as all Christians confessed –the Word made flesh, the historical Jesus is not the issue here, but the Logos of John’s Gospel, it was reasonable to conclude, as Arius and others did, there must have been a time when he was not. God alone, that is the Father, the Biblical Yahweh, is unbegotten and unchangeable. “We are persecuted,” Arius wrote, “because we say that the Son had a beginning and that God [the Father] is without beginning.” As a creature, then, Jesus could not be of the same substance (homo-ousios) as the Father. In his divinity he was at best, in a term supplied by the Arians, “of a similar substance” (homoi-ousios).

At this point, however, the Trinitarian discussion, which for two and a half centuries had ebbed and flowed in Christian circles around the Mediterranean, took a new turn. Christian assemblies, the ekklesiai, as they were called, each with a bishop at its head, had been increasing in number and slowly arranging themselves in a kind of hierarchical order around the bishops of great metropolitan centers like Alexandria, Antioch and Rome, Now, with the emperor Constantine’s conversion in the opening decades of the fourth century, Christians had a sovereign who saw himself responsible not only for the Empire but also for what could now be called simply “the Church,” the Christian congregations viewed as a corporate whole.

Previously, free-ranging discussions of the Trinity and other matters of Christian doctrine were local or regional. Uniformity of belief had, however, been a particularly Christian concern from the beginning, and bishops, whose office and powers were growing, attempted, not terribly successfully, to control and shape the discussions through their own pronouncements or, in the case of metropolitan bishops, through regional synods of bishops under their jurisdiction.

Constantine was not a theologian –he thought the Trinitarian discussion was an argument about minutiae, as mischievous as it was pointless—but he was enough of a Roman to recognize in its growing dimensions of dissent a threat to the peace and order of his Church. So in 325 A.D. he summoned all the bishops of the Great Church to Nicea, a town across the Bosporus from the capital of Constantinople, to debate and settle the issue of Father and Son. Like the later conclaves of cardinals charged with the election of a pope, the bishops in council debated and voted until they thought they had it right, or at least until they agreed, which is what the emperor most desired.

The Trinity Defined

The bishops at Nicea agreed but they did not settle. Their agreement was issued in the form of a communiqué that was a declaration of the Church’s official teaching, a formal statement of doctrine, with an explicit ban of some differing opinions, chiefly Arius’. The declaration was called a “creed” from its opening word, “We believe…” which in recitative contexts becomes “I believe,” in Latin, credo. Its formal Greek designation was, however, symbolon, which as a technical term represents something close to the English “ID” or “password.” There had been more general creeds issued earlier by local synods as well as briefer, creed-like formulae used by various churches as formal declarations of belief required at baptism. This was, however, the first such declaration that professed, by reason of the nature of the assembly and the emperor’s imprimatur, to represent the doctrine of the “universal church” (katholike ekklesia).

The creed produced by the 300-odd bishops at Nicea is a kind of pastiche, composed of what must have been fairly standard baptismal formulas and technical, and argumentative, explanations. The Nicene Creed begins with an assertion that Christians are, like the good Jews they once were, monotheists, that is, they believe in the One True God, and though he is now called by Jesus’ designation, “Father,” he is unmistakably the Biblical Yahweh, “maker of all things, visible and invisible.”

The creed moves on to the crucial belief in Jesus, “the Lord Jesus Christ,” as the Christians thought of him, “the Son of God.” That is what the New Testament called him and that is what Christians believed. It is at that point that Scripture’s descriptive characterization of Jesus is left behind and the creed embarks on an explanation of the relation between Jesus and Yahweh. First the Scripture’s “Son” metaphor is paraphrased: Jesus is “the only-begotten” or “generated by” (or “from” or “out of”) the Father, which is immediately explained as “from the same essence or substance (ousia) as the Father; hence it can be asserted that he is “(true) God from true God.” There follow two critical clarifications. Jesus is “generated, not made,” that is, he is not to be thought of as a “creature” or a “thing.” He is in fact “consubstantial” (homo-ousios) with the Father.”

“Consubstantial“ is a philosophical term of art that had entered Trinitarian discussions decades earlier and was here suggested by Constantine himself as the mot juste. The suggestion may have been made with a sigh of exasperation; the emperor regarded the entire discussion as trivial, pointless and dangerous. But the word seemed to serve as a neat explanation of how Jesus and Yahweh could both be God: they both shared in “Godness. And homoousios was eventually the same passport with which the Holy Spirit later entered the Trinity: it too was “consubstantial” with the Father and the Son.

There is then a nod to Jesus as the Word (Logos) of John’s Gospel, present and active at Creation: “(Jesus), by whom all things were made…” which leads into a critical reflection on that same Word as incarnate savior: “the one who for us humans and for our salvation came down and took on flesh and humanity.” It was this clause that in the decades after Nicea opened the door to a resolution of the Christian paradox of Christian belief in a transcendent Yahweh/Father and a human Jesus/Son: God had to become mortal and suffer a genuine death to effect the salvation of humankind. Jewish sacrifice was a ritual of atonement: this was the supreme sacrifice, the death of the God-Son.

The same theme is carried forward somewhat more circumstantially in the next clause: “He suffered and on the third he rose again and ascended into the heavens,” and with an acknowledgement of Jesus’ eventual return to complete the Messianic mission, “will come to judge the living and the dead.”

The Holy Spirit is dealt with simply and briefly: “…and [we believe] in the Holy Spirit.”

So it ends. But the bishops, since they, and assuredly the emperor, were as interested in exterminating as in confirming, added a series of anathemas or formal condemnations directed specifically against those —and we know who you are is the unmistakable subtext– who said of the Son of God “that there was a time when he was not” or “that he was made out of nothing” or that he was from a different hypostasis or ousia or a created thing or changeable or alterable”; in short, all those who denied that he was the ontological equal of the Father.


The Nicene Creed gives the impression of being somewhat “thrown together,” as its technical name, symbolon, literally suggests. So it must have seemed to others as well since in 381 there was another such Church-wide council of bishops at Constantinople —there had been 300-odd at Nicea, but only half that number at Constantinople— who revised the Nicene Creed, chiefly, from our Trinitarian perspective, with regard to the Holy Spirit. The terse Nicene original “…and in the Holy Spirit” was now enlarged to “and in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Life-Giver, who proceeds from the Father, who, together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, and who spoke through the prophets.
The effect of the expansion, which makes explicit traditional Christian beliefs rather than adding new ones, now formally affirms that the Spirit too is “Lord” (Kyrios), the same title of divinity predicated of Jesus. But while Jesus was the Son, “begotten by the Father,” in accordance with what the Scriptures say, the Spirit is here described as “proceeding from the Father,” a formula that owes far more to the current Platonism and its emanationism –and the ever-popular analogy of the sun and its rays— than it does to any New Testament evidence. The new creed does not say, however, that the Spirit is “consubstantial” with the Father and the Son, not because the bishops thought the Spirit inferior, but more likely because the term homoousios and its conflicting interpretations were causing discomfort in many circles and it may have been thought wiser to avoid it altogether here.

Ongoing Problems

If the Christian believes in revelation, then it is beyond any doubt that the “elements” of the Trinity, Yahweh/Father, Jesus/Son and Holy Spirit, are firmly and unmistakably attested to there. But it is equally clear that the Trinity as such, that the three constitute a single Godhead, is not to be found in Scripture. It is adduced. But it remains nonetheless an essential element in the Christian belief system. Though they may agree on little else, all the major divisions of the Christian faith, Eastern and Western, accept as dogma the Trinitarian creed promulgated by the Council of Nicea and its revision at the Council of Constantinople.

This was not certainly the end of the discussion or the last attempt at explaining what Christians believe or, more pointedly, must believe on the matter of the Trinity. Apart from differing interpretations of their technical terms, there were, and remain, two basic problems with these creeds. The first objection, an early one, is that the critical terms used there have no Scriptural warrant. “Three hypostases!” the Latin Church Father Jerome snorted, “What Apostles authorized them? What new Paul has promulgated this doctrine?” The problem here of course was that the warranted Scriptural language described but did not explain; the Scripture, the three Synoptic Gospels in particular, presented the paradox of two divine beings and went no further than calling them “Father” and “Son,” which everyone understood was not literally true.

Believers of all stripes, increasing numbers of them non-Jews raised in a Greco-Roman tradition, undertook to explain the metaphor. It was left to the bishops, however, whose responsibility it was to stand guard over the true faith, to set things aright. They followed in the footsteps of Paul and John and attempted to theologize, to explain what the Scriptures had merely described. But Paul had claimed for himself, and had been granted, the cachet of Apostle, while John, an actual Apostle, had more consequentially put his theology in the mouth of Jesus himself. From the mid-second century explanations of the relationship between Jesus, whom his followers regarded as divine, and Yahweh, the God Jesus himself worshipped, was cast in the terms borrowed from Greek philosophy and applied to the givens of revelation. If the function of philosophy, and of its subset, theology, was “saving the apparent,” that is, to explain what our senses present to us, the aim of this new or introductory version of “sacred theology” was to “save the revelation” by simply renaming some of its moving parts.

The revised creed of Nicea, if it was the first definitive word on the Trinity on the part of the corporate Church, it was by no means the last. Though the basics had been laid down as dogma –One God, three equally divine individuals— the Church continued to define and refine, with the understanding that one creed or dogmatic statement does not cancel another. Only the Church could define, but anyone could explain and there were many, past and present, have attempted to explain how and why One could be Three.

The second objection to the creed, a more modern one, is that the Greek conceptual system used at Nicea and long after to unpack the language and figures of Scripture is no longer thought adequate to the task of explaining reality. “Essence,” hypostasis” and “consubstantial,” all staples of the then current mélange of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, have fallen into disuse and indeed into disfavor, and “person” too has migrated into far richer conceptual fields than the Fathers conceived of. A contemporary expositor of the Trinity might be tempted to turn rather to the neurology of the brain or the operating platforms of digital computers to explain the Trinity.

Between Nicea and the moderns, a multitude of heuristic keys have been turned in that troublesome triune lock by every master locksmith from Augustine of Hippo to Karl Barth. The Church, for its part, no longer wardens Trinitarian discussion as closely as it once did since early on it also pronounced the paradox of the Trinity insoluble and, though its “givens,” the Oneness of God and the existence of the Father, the divine Christ and the equally divine Holy Spirit, are provided by an inerrant Scripture, the mode of their triune being incomprehensible. The Trinity is, in the formal language of the Church, a mystery, that is, a truth that is beyond the comprehensive powers of the human intellect.


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