Christian Spirituality > The Holy Spirit > History Of Trinitarian Theology
The threefold pattern of speaking about God was there from the earliest Christians and the New Testament they made : Matt 28:19 (the Great Commission); Gal 3:11-14, 1 Peter 1:2. In those passages, the threefold pattern was not demanded by the context, and did not need to be explained or 'sold' to the reader. Thus, they probably spoke in that way from the very beginning of the Church. Yet from the different ways it's said, it is also clear that they had no specific understanding of what was meant by it. Did this infer three Gods? If they were a unity, how could that be and what is meant by that? Some felt that other parts of the New Testament, and the Hebrew Scriptures, treated the Spirit as just another way of seeing either the Father or the Son. Others saw the Spirit as a distinct entity within God, a Person in no less a way than Christ was. The early Christians weren't thinking much about the Spirit; they were busy with teaching and telling non-believers about Jesus. But as people started asking themselves questions about Jesus, how He was always with us, and how the Christian believer could be more Christlike, the early followers found that they had to think through what they were saying about God. (No, they did not say to themselves, "I think we need to create theology". They just thought about God through the Scriptures, which started to include the works of what is now the New Testament.)
A sampling of the earliest writings confirms this vague sense of confusion. The Didache (probably the earliest of the Church's non-Scriptural writings) uses the threefold Name once (Did 7.1.3); otherwise, the Spirit is not discussed. In First Clement, the Triune Name is used in an oath, and lies behind two other passages. Ignatius used the Triune Name several times (in Magn 13.2 and Eph 9.1), but in its parts rather than in the Matthew formula. The Martyrdom of Polycarp reports that Polycarp used the Triune Name in a doxology. Yet the Shepherd of Hermas and 2 Clement didn't clearly distinguish the Son from the Spirit. It may be that some of these authors were binitarian, seeing the Spirit as an spinoff of Christ or the presence of the Father. Or, they just felt no need to go into that sort of thing, stressing the united purpose within God. The written prayers of early Christians often praised the Holy Spirit toward the end of the prayer, at the same time that they praised the Father and the Son. They didn't need to say how or why this was so in order to do such praising. This is the Unseen Breath they were talking about, and even vague definitions may not yet have been seen as desirable or even wise. Even so, it was common to use threefold symbols (Christianity was not alone at that) for mysteries, and these symbols would set the stage for the trinitarian language to come.
These early authors did not come right out and say "the Holy Spirit is God and not some separate or created entity or a divine function". Given how clear they were making themselves about the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ and about the teachings of the Gnostics, it's surprising to see such a lack of definition, especially since Gnostics used any example of fuzziness by the Church to boast of their own 'inside' knowledge. The more the Church thought about it and the more situations it lived through, the more important it became that something more was said about the Spirit. Some ideas about the Spirit were leading people away from the truth about Jesus; since the Spirit's main task is to lead people to Christ, those ideas must be very wrong. And at some point, they knew they had to come to grips with what Scripture was saying about God, and why it refers to God in three ways.
An early sign that the Church was waking up to this came from Theophilos of Antioch. He held that the Spirit was preexistent (that is, the Spirit was there before the universe was created), and thus definitely not a created being. Theophilos stated a Trinity as such in formalized terms (Autol. 2:15), but the form he used was God/Word/Wisdom.
Athenagoras of Athens wrote that the Holy Spirit was an "effluence of God, flowing forth and returning to God like a ray of the sun" (Supp. 10). The first hints of an internal explanation of how the Spirit came to be comes in Athenagoras; his logic (not stated outrightly) leads one to think in terms of a doctrine that would arise a generation later, that of the essence of the Spirit 'proceeding' from the Father. But there are also some echos of his view today, in the more New Age-influenced writers.
Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (d. 202 AD)
spent almost all of his considerable theological talent on
shaping an understanding of Jesus Christ as God, but in doing
so he touched on the Holy Spirit as well. Irenaeus saw the
Spirit as being divine, pre-existent and involved in creation,
though he too preferred to speak of Wisdom, the Spirit of
Christ, and the image of the Father. He did not use the concept
of the Trinity directly in his theology, even if the logic of
his descriptions of the Spirit and of Christ, as well as his
praises, leads one to the conclusion he was decisively
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It is not until Tertullian, who lived in North Africa and died around 220 AD, that a leading Church theologian gave the Church a razor-sharp, to-the-point teaching on the Holy Spirit as God. Tertullian was not one to hedge his words. Tertullian was the first to clearly mark out what he thought was happening to cause this Trinity: to wit, the Spirit was coordinated with the Father and the Son, and was joined with them in substance, coming from the Father through the Son in some way. In his trinitarian theology, the Godhead is three in sequence (who came first), aspect, and manifestation (how they show themselves), but one in quality (they are perfect and complete), substance (whatever it is that makes God, all three are), power (all three can do anything), and purpose (their aim regarding the created universe is precisely the same). All of this not only applied to Father and Son, but the Spirit as well. He calls the Spirit "the third name in Divinity, and the third degree of the Divine Majesty".
Tertullian paid a lot of attention to matters of the Holy Spirit. No one knows what personal experiences may have led him to do so. But his deeply rooted concern for matters of the Holy Spirit and holiness led him to become one of the Church's great theologians. It also led Tertullian into the Montanist movement, a movement which stressed the Spirit's work happening now, not just as a past or future thing. As time went by, Montanus and Montanist leaders claimed great eternal stature for themselves, and claimed authority beyond bishops and traditions, even beyond Scripture. While the movement itself slipped away from the faith, some of those drawn to it did not. Tertullian himself grew even more extreme on matters of personal holiness, to the point that it overrode his sense of freedom in the Spirit.
While Montanism didn't cause direct problems for the theology of the Holy Spirit, Arianism very clearly did. Arius, starting at around 318 AD, taught that Jesus was not God but a created being, made by God just like you or I. The idea itself was not new, but Arius gave it a challenging level of depth, and he vigorously spread the idea, especially throughout his home base of North Africa. For a short time, the leading Christian cities of Alexandria and Constantinople were strongly influenced by Arianism. The logic of Arius' view of Jesus leads to the view that the Spirit is also a created being and not God; this became a central feature of the teachings of Macedonius. Arius himself is reported by Athanasius to have written that the Holy Spirit, as well as the Father and Son, were separate by nature and did not take part in each other -- discrete beings in the same sense as you or I. If Arianism was not a worship of three gods, it was only because the Son and the Spirit were seen as something less than God.
Arius was a speaker and thinker to be reckoned with, and his work forced
the church into several generations of long, hard rethinking
about God. The first part of the challenge was to state in a
basic form the Scriptural belief in Jesus the Christ. This was
done at the Council of Nicaea, which gave forth a creed which
gave great detail about Jesus as human and as God, both in and
beyond history, living and dying and rising and returning. But
the creed which came from the Council in 325, though clearly organized around the Trinity, said next to
nothing about the Holy Spirit (that part was the same as found
in the Apostles Creed : "We believe in the Holy Spirit"). It
was left to Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria (d. 373) to
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Athanasius, too, hesitates to talk about how the Spirit is God. But that is mostly a matter of tipping his hat to the unfathomable mystery of God's inner workings. Athanasius is responsible for taking Tertullian's structure and building on it, giving the Christian doctrine of the Trinity the form it has today. He makes it clear that the Spirit is God by what he says about the Spirit, that is, the same basic things he says about the Father and Son. The Spirit doesn't change, is present everywhere, and is intimately involved in all the doings of the Father and the Son.
Athanasius was in the heartland of Arianist teachings, and bishop of a city where Arius had taught. He had to deal not only with Arius' tempting ideas, but also with the sects that spun off from them -- such as the Tropici (the Turning Ones). Since both the mainstream and the Arianist approaches to the Spirit were often inferred rather than out-front, the Church took up the struggle with Arianism's Holy Spirit after dealing with Arianist notions about Christ.
The time had come for the Church to become clearer about the Holy Spirit. Thus the work of Athanasius, the Cappadocians (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzos) Hilary, and Ambrose, led the Church to understand what it meant when it said 'the Holy Spirit'. For instance, Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394 AD) pointed to the Holy Spirit's work in Baptism to show that the Spirit is God. Basil (d. 379 AD) argued that the Spirit was to be worshipped as God, based on what the Spirit gives us, including adoption as children of God and the inheritance of God's blessings now and (fully) to come, and for giving us cause to rejoice. Gregory of Nazianzos (d. 389 AD) undertook the practical task of leading the church in Constantinople away from Arianism. Another key leader, Hilary of Poitiers (d. 367 AD), wrote about the Spirit's role in 'divinizing' the faithful -- influenced by the Eastern churches' idea of 'theosis', wherein the Christian follower is being re-made by God to be like God, in a process which is not completed until the Kingdom comes.
The work of these thinkers led to the additions to the Nicene Creed which came out of the Council of Constantinople in 381. These changes gave the Church the version of the Nicene Creed now used in worship services, except for one small change made later that is not used in the Orthodox churches. The "Nicene-Constantinopolitan" creed states that:
"We believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord and Giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father,
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
who spoke through the prophets".
That is to say, the Holy Spirit does divine things such as giving life, is of divine origin, reveals to us what God wills, and is worshipped as God. The idea that the Holy Spirit "is" God is stated by calling the Spirit "the Lord" and "the Giver of Life", two descriptives of God. It's also stated by the fact that there is a specific section for God the Spirit in the Creed, under which come the Church and the teachings of the Church about what is to come.
Thus the early church slowly came around to an understanding of
what it meant when it baptized in the three names of God. But they only did so because they had no real choice.
They ask us all to please say it carefully, with hushed tones. It's a mystery, and so it's
dangerous to say too much.
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More stuff on who the Spirit is to Christians.
Sample Philip Schaff's classic work on the Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and
Post-Nicene Fathers. It's a basic resource for studying the
Also the Ecole Initiative is a great, and more recent, collection from the early church.
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|ver.: 02 April 2012
The History of Belief in the Trinity. Copyright © 1995-2012 by Robert Longman.