The Trinity was not there in the first century

Jesus, the apostles or Church Fathers? Who invented the Trinity?

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT

Often Trinitarians claim that the Trinity (and by Trinity, they mean the mainstream dogma that says God is three persons in one being, i.e., God exists eternally as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) is taught in the New Testament and can be found even in the first century of the Christian era. They will direct us to Patristic sources such as Ignatius, Tertullian and others.Typically, from the first century, the Patristic sources that are cited include Justin Martyr and Ignatius, but none of the available records that may have been penned by these individuals actually carry in them a clear description of the Trinity dogma as we know it today. None of these three individuals actually imparted Trinitarian formulations that could have typified the content of the Athanasian Creed. And so we move on to the second century where we have Patristic figures such as Iranaeus, Tertullian and Origen, but none of them save Tertullian and Origen actually wrote anything that may resemble the Trinity. Origen was born in 185 AD and so, one would be hard pressed to contend that he was teaching theological doctrines before the age of fifteen, which means that whatever teaching that he put forward that had some Trinitarian semblance must have been made after 200 AD,the third century of the Christian calendar. Thus, even if Athanasius was not the promulgator of the Trinity, the earliest that one can trace the doctrine to is Tertullian. And so the eminent German scholar Adolf von Harnack writes: “When the Nicene formulary is praised, it is always of Athanasius that we think; when the Chalcedonian decree is cited, it is the name of Leo the Great that is magnified. But that Tertullian is in reality the father of the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and of the Person of Christ, and that in the whole patristic literature there is no treatise that can be compared in importance and influence with his tract Against Praxeas, it has necessarily been left to the investigations of our own day to exhibit.” [1]

But how can Tertullian be relied upon as the Father of Trinitarianism when he was officially condemned as a heretic for his Montanist leanings? Throughout church history, Tertullian of Carthage has been disparaged for his Montanism which disqualified him from receiving sainthood from the Church. He is the only prominent Patristic figure that was not awarded the title “Saint” and so he has remained throughout the ages as simply plain old Tertullian. According to official condemnations, he “…fell into the heresy of the Montanists, who blasphemously held that Montanus was that Paraclete or Comforter which our Saviour promised to send: and that better and fuller discoveries of God’s will were made to him than to the Apostles, who prophesied only in part.” [2] If Tertullian is the inauguration of early Trinitarian formulations, then Christians will have to contemplate receiving a fundamental dogma from a heretical source. In any case, Tertullian only came to the scene around 130 years after Jesus’ departure; therefore, it is hardly conceivable that his Trinitarian predilections should have any real relationship with Jesus or his apostles and earliest followers.

What is historically certain is that pre-Athanasian and pre-Chalcedonian sources do not contain in them the full blown and adequate Trinitarian formula. What we may see are rough patches that seem to resemble what later became orthodox church dogma through Athanasius and other such persons. And so, The New Catholic Encyclopedia says the following concerning the Trinity: “There is the recognition on the part of exegetes and Biblical theologians, including a constantly growing number of Roman Catholics, that one should not speak of Trinitarianism in the New Testament without serious qualification. There is also the closely parallel recognition on the part of historians of dogma and systematic theologians that when one does speak of an unqualified Trinitarianism, one has moved from the period of Christian origins to, say, the last quadrant of the 4th Century. It was only then that what might be called the definitive Trinitarian dogma “one God in three Persons” became thoroughly assimilated into Christian life and thought.” [3]

Theologian and linguist Dr. Marian Hillar writes:
“The orthodox Christian concept of the unity of God in the Trinity was developed slowly as a result of a long process of mixing various ideologies. The whole idea of the Trinity came about as a syncretic development from the clash of the Hebrew Unitarian concept of God; the Greek religion-philosophical concepts of the nature of God and the powers governing the world; the mixing of the Greek religious ideas about a Savior who acts as a mediator between God and humans with the Hebrew concept of the Messiah, who was presented and expected as a national liberator; and the Egyptian religious concept of the triune divinity.

The Roman Catholic Church maintained that the doctrine of the triune God was contained or at least implied in the scriptural texts of the Old and New Testaments and that such was their message. The doctrine was established as a dominant one in the fourth century by combining it with a means of coercion in the form of state law and preventing any independent scholarly study of the sacred texts. It took the Reformation and Radical Reformation to initiate a painful and often bloodily repressed process of a reevaluation of the sacred texts and a return to their original meaning.” [4]

Affirming a fourth century date for the finalisation of the Trinity and its establishment as dogma, Nancy Hedberg writes:

“…the doctrine of the Trinity was established in the fourth century and for the most part the equality of the Father and the Son in both essence and works was defended down through the centuries.” [5]

Agreeing with the Catholic Encyclopedia, Hillar and Hedberg on the dating of the Trinity, Professor of Religion at Seaver College Dr. Ronald Highfield writes:

“The traditional dogma of the Trinity came to its definitive formulation in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (A.D. 381). The Nicene Creed was adopted by the Council of Constantinople, and it brought to a close the fourth-century controversy about the Trinity. It was accepted by the ancient ecumenical church and had remained a treasured statement of the Trinitarian faith for the worldwide church.” [6]

Thus, it is completely ahistorical to claim that the Trinity existed as an established doctrine in the early days of the Christian calendar. The earliest theologians who gave cloudy descriptions of God that may have some semblance to the fourth century Trinity doctrine gave ideas that were haphazard and non-definitive. Some were even heretics such as Tertullian. And so, we recommend that Christians of all colours and flavours to return to the original and simple creed of Jesus: “the Lord our God, the Lord is ONE” (Mark 12:29)


[1] Cited in Warfield, B. B. (1905). Tertullian and the Beginning of the Doctrine of the Trinity. The Princeton Theological Review. p. 531

[2] Wall, W. (n.d.). The History of Infant Baptism. London: Griffith, Farran, Okeden & Walsh. p. 41

[3] Cited in Graeser, M. H., Lynn, J. A. & Schoenheit, J. W. (2010). One God & One Lord: Reconsidering the Cornerstone of the Christian Faith. Indiana: Spirit & Truth Fellowship International. p. 336 fn. 29

[4] Hillar, M. (2011). From Logos to Trinity: The Evolution of Religious Beliefs from Pythagoras to Tertullian. New York: Cambridge University Press. p.132

[5] Hedberg, N. Women, Men, and the Trinity: What Does It Mean to Be Equal?. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock. p.39

[6] Highfield R. (2008). Great is the Lord: Theology for the Praise of God. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 106

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