Third-Century Trinitarianism

by J. N. D Kelly

1. Introduction

THE third century saw the emergence of conflicting tendencies in Trinitarian thought which were to provide the material for later controversies. Hitherto the overriding preoccupation of Christian theism had been with the unity of God; the struggle with paganism and Gnosticism thrust this article well into the foreground. As a result, while theologians were obscurely aware of distinctions within the one indivisible Godhead, and Theophilus could even describe the Father with His Word and His Wisdom as the Triad, they showed little disposition to explore the eternal relations of the Three, much less to construct a conceptual and linguistic apparatus capable of expressing them. Their most fruitful efforts, as we observed in the preceding chapter, were expended in considering the Triad as manifested in creation and redemption, and in attempting to show how the Son and the Spirit, revealed in the 'economy' as other than the Father, were at the same time inseparably one with Him in His eternal being.

Economic Trinitarianism of this type continued to find exponents in the late second and early third centuries; we shall give an account of the most noteworthy of them in the next section. Its very success, however, brought to the surface a powerful reaction in circles which fought shy of the Logos doctrine and suspected that the growing emphasis on the triplicity disclosed by revelation imperilled the divine unity. This current of thought was chiefly evident in the West; it was called monarchianism because its adherents, as Tertullian phrased it, 'took fright at the economy' and sought refuge in 'the monarchy' (μοναρχία), i.e. the axiom that there was one divine source and principle of all things. At the same time a diametrically opposite movement was under way in the East. This took the form of a frankly pluralistic conception of the Deity which tried, without sacrificing the basic tenet of monotheism, to do justice to the reality and distinction of the Three within God's eternal being—in other words, to Their subsistence as 'Persons'. Though associated in the first instance with Alexandria, this new approach was destined to leave a permanent impress on Greek Trinitarianism as a whole, and indeed on Christian thinking generally.


2. Hippolytus and Tertullian

Our first task is to consider two theologians who stood more or less directly in the line of the Apologists and Irenaeus, and reflected their influence at many points. These were the Roman anti-pope and martyr, Hippolytus († 235), and the North African Tertullian (c. 160–c. 225). Like their predecessors, both set great store by monotheism, devoting their energies to the refutation of Gnostic dualism, although ironically enough they were branded with the charge of polytheism in circles (we shall return to these later) where modalism flourished. While their ideas are in many respects similar, those of Hippolytus seem more archaic, less thoroughly worked out; Tertullian's brilliant mind was able to formulate a statement of more lasting value. The clue to their teaching, as to that of Irenaeus, is to approach it simultaneously from two opposite directions, considering God (a) as He exists in His eternal being, and (b) as He reveals Himself in the process of creation and redemption. The comprehensive term they borrowed from Irenaeus for the latter was 'economy' (οἰκονομία; dispensatio). From meaning the divine plan, or God's secret purpose, the word became applied in Christian theology to the incarnation, the goal of the divine purpose. Among its original meanings, however, was that of distribution, organization, the arrangement of a number of factors in a regular order or τάξις; and so it was extended to connote the distinction of Son and Spirit from the one Father as disclosed in the working out of God's redemptive plan.

First, then, they both had the conception of God existing in unique solitariness from all eternity, yet having immanent in and indivisibly one with Himself, on the analogy of the mental functions in a man, His reason or Word. This is the doctrine, familiar since the Apologists, of the Logos endiathetos, and Hippolytus actually uses the technical term. For him, as for Tatian and Irenaeus, God's Word and His Wisdom are distinguished, being in fact the Son and the Spirit regarded as immanent; but Tertullian follows2 the tradition which equates Wisdom with the Word. Thus Hippolytus affirms that there is always a plurality in the Godhead, stating, 'Though alone, He was multiple (μόνος ὢν πολὺς ἦν), for He was not without His Word and His Wisdom, His Power and His Counsel'. Tertullian is rather more explicit, pointing out that 'before all things God was alone, being His own universe, location, everything. He was alone, however, in the sense that there was nothing external to Himself. But even then He was not really alone, for He had with Him that Reason which He possessed within Himself, that is to say, His own Reason.' Moreover, he brings out, much more clearly than any of his predecessors, the otherness or individuality of this immanent reason or Word. The rationality, he explains,5 by means of which a man cogitates and plans is somehow 'another' (alius), or 'a second' in himself (cf. secundus quodammodo in te est sermo); and so it is with the divine Word, with which God has been ratiocinating from everlasting and which constitutes 'a second in addition to Himself' (secundum a se).

Secondly, however, the threefoldness of God's intrinsic being is manifested in creation and redemption. According to Hippolytus, when God willed, He engendered His Word, using Him to create the universe, and His Wisdom to adorn or order it. Later still, with the world's salvation in view, He rendered the Word, hitherto invisible, visible at the incarnation. Thereupon, alongside the Father (i.e. the Godhead Itself), there was 'another' (αὐτῷ παρίστατο ἕτερος) a second 'Person' (πρόσωπον), while the Spirit completed the Triad. But if there are Three revealed in the economy, there is in fact only one God, since it is the Father Who commands, the Son Who obeys and the Spirit Who makes us understand. Hippolytus is most insistent on the essential unity, stating2 that there is only one Power, and that 'when I speak of "another", I do not mean two Gods, but as it were light from light, water from its source, a ray from the sun. For there is only one Power, that which issues from the All. The All is the Father, and the Power issuing from the All is the Word. He is the Father's mind.… Thus all things are through Him, but He alone is from the Father'. Similarly, in stressing that the Word's generation takes place as and when the Father wills, his intention is not to subordinate Him to the Father (judged by post-Nicene standards, his language has a subordinationist ring), but to emphasize the absolute unity of the Godhead, since that will of the Father is in fact none other than the Word Himself.

Hippolytus was reluctant to designate the Word as Son in any other than a proleptic sense till the incarnation. Tertullian followed the Apologists in dating5 His 'perfect generation' from His extrapolation for the work of creation; prior to that moment God could not strictly be said to have had a Son, while after it the term 'Father', which for earlier theologians generally connoted God as author of reality, began to acquire the specialized meaning of Father of the Son.7 As so generated, the Word or Son is a 'Person' (persona), 'a second in addition to the Father' (secundum a patre). In the third place, however, there is the Spirit, the 'representative' or 'deputy' (vicaria vis9) of the Son; He issues from the Father by way of the Son (a patre per filium), being 'third from the Father and the Son, just as the fruit derived from the shoot is third from the root, and as the channel drawn off from the river is third from the spring, and as the light-point in the beam is third from the sun'. He, too, is a 'Person',2 so that the Godhead is a 'trinity' (trinitas: Tertullian is the first to employ the word). The three are indeed numerically distinct, being 'capable of being counted' (numerum … patiuntur4). Thus Tertullian can state: 'We believe in one only God, yet subject to this dispensation, which is our word for economy, that the one only God has also a Son, His Word, Who has issued out of Himself … which Son then sent, according to His promise, the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, out of the Father'; and later in the same context he can balance the divine unity with 'the mystery of the economy, which distributes the unity into Trinity, setting forth Father, Son and Spirit as three'.

Tertullian exerted himself to show (the criticisms of the modalists made him sensitive on the point) that the threeness revealed in the economy was in no way incompatible with God's essential unity. Like Hippolytus, he argued that, though three, the Persons were severally manifestations of a single indivisible power, noting that on the analogy of the imperial government one and the same sovereignty could be exercised by coordinate agencies. Like the Apologists, he again and again repudiated7 the suggestion that the distinction between the Three involved any division or separation; it was a distinctio or dispositio (i.e. a distribution), not a separatio, and he quoted the unity between the root and its shoot, the source and the river, and the sun and its light as illustrations. His characteristic way of expressing this was to state that Father, Son and Spirit are one in 'substance'. Thus Father and Son are one identical substance which has been, not divided, but 'extended'; the Saviour's claim, 'I and my Father are one' (unum), indicates that the Three are 'one reality' (unum is neuter), not 'one Person' (unus), pointing as it does to identity of substance and not mere numerical unity; the Son is unius substantiae with the Father, and the Son and the Spirit are consortes substantiae patris. Using crudely materialistic language (his background of ideas was Stoic,4 and he regarded the divine spirit as a highly rarefied species of matter), Tertullian can say that 'the Father is the whole substance, while the Son is a derivation from and portion of the whole'—where the context makes it plain that 'portion' (portio) is not to be taken literally as implying any division or severance. Thus, when he sums the matter up, he dismisses the idea that the Persons can be three in 'status' (i.e. fundamental quality), substance or power; as regards these the Godhead is indivisibly one, and the threeness applies only to the 'grade' (gradus = Greek τάξις), or 'aspect' (forma), or 'manifestation' (species) in which the Persons are presented.

Hippolytus and Tertullian were at one with Irenaeus in regarding the Three revealed in the economy as manifestations of the plurality which they apprehended, however obscurely, in the immanent life of the Godhead. Where they were in advance of him was (a) in their attempts to make explicit the oneness of the divine power or substance of which the Three were expressions or forms, and (b) in their recognition of Them (Hippolytus applied the word to Father and Son only) as Persons (πρόσωπα; personae). This latter term, it should be noted, was still reserved for Them as manifested in the order of revelation; only later did it come to be applied to the Word and the Spirit as immanent in God's eternal being. There has been much discussion about the precise meaning of their terminology, some arguing that for Tertullian at any rate, with his legal upbringing, substantia signified a piece of property which several people could jointly own. In fact, however, the metaphysical sense was foremost in his mind, and the word connoted the divine essence, that of which God is, with the emphasis on its concrete reality. As he remarks, 'God is the name for the substance, that is, the divinity'; and the Word, so far from being a mere notional nonentity, is 'substantival', 'a substance composed of spirit and wisdom and reason'. Hence, when he speaks of the Son as being 'of one substance' with the Father, he means that They share the same divine nature or essence, and in fact, since the Godhead is indivisible, are one identical being. On the other hand, the terms πρόσωπον and persona were admirably suited to express the otherness, or independent subsistence, of the Three. After originally meaning 'face', and so 'expression' and then 'role', the former came to signify 'individual', the stress being usually on the external aspect or objective presentation. The primary sense of persona was 'mask', from which the transition was easy to the actor who wore it and the character he played. In legal usage it could stand for the holder of the title to a property, but as employed by Tertullian it connoted the concrete presentation of an individual as such. In neither case, it should be noted, was the idea of self-consciousness nowadays associated with 'person' and 'personal' at all prominent.


3. Dynamic Monarchianism

The closing decades of the second century witnessed the emergence of two forms of teaching which, though fundamentally different, have been brought together by modern historians under the common name of monarchianism. 'Dynamic' monarchianism, more accurately called adoptionism, was the theory that Christ was a 'mere man' (ψιλὸς ἄνθρωπος: hence 'psilanthropism') upon whom God's Spirit had descended. It was essentially a Christological heresy, but the circumstances in which it arose justify its treatment here. Modalism, which was alone designated monarchianism by contemporaries, tended to blur the distinctions between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The classification of both as forms of monarchianism stems from the assumption that, despite different starting-points and motives, they were united by a concern for the divine unity, or monarchia. This supposition goes back at least as far as Novatian (c. 250), who interpreted adoptionism and modalism as misguided attempts to salvage the Bible dogma that God is one. So far as the former is concerned, there is nothing to show that this consideration carried much weight with at any rate its original supporters. It may well have been influencing their successors in Novatian's day, but they themselves seem to have been intellectuals inspired by current philosophical rationalism.

The originator of dynamic monarchianism is said to have been a learned Byzantine leather-merchant, Theodotus, who brought it to Rome about 190. Malicious critics explained his position as a makeshift device to cover up a previous act of apostasy at Byzantium ('I have not denied God, but a man'), but it was in fact carefully worked out and shows no signs of improvisation. While in full agreement with orthodox views about the creation of the world, the divine omnipotence and even the virgin birth, Theodotus held2 that until His baptism Jesus lived the life of an ordinary man, with the difference that He was supremely virtuous. The Spirit, or Christ, then descended upon Him, and from that moment He worked miracles, without, however, becoming divine—others of the same school admitted His deification after His resurrection. Theodotus and his followers were much preoccupied with Biblical exegesis and textual criticism, and appealed4 to such texts as Deut. 18:15 and Luke 1:35 (the latter amended to read 'Spirit of the Lord'), to support their claim that Jesus was an ordinary man whom the Spirit had inspired rather than indwelt. They also scandalized the faithful by their interest in logic and geometry, and the deference they paid to Aristotle, Euclid and, among contemporaries, the philosophical physician Galen. Theodotus was himself excommunicated by Pope Victor (186–98), but his ideas were immediately taken up by another Theodotus, this time a banker, an Asclepiodotus, and an Artemas, or Artemon, who lived on at Rome beyond the middle of the third century. Mixed up with the teaching of the second Theodotus were bizarre speculations about Melchizedek, whom he regarded as 'the supreme Power', superior to Christ and mediator between God and man, 'spiritual and Son of God', and whom he may have equated with the Spirit which descended on Jesus.

These adoptionists were an isolated and unrepresentative movement in Gentile Christianity. It is an attractive guess that Theodotus the leather-merchant and his coterie belonged to the circle of Galen, and were stimulated by his friendly, but critical, interest in the faith to work out a rationalizing version of it. Their scholarly sympathies and methods were certainly akin to his, and their chief object seems to have been to eliminate the idea, so uncongenial to people imbued with Greek philosophical culture, of an incarnation of the Deity. The second generation of the adoptionists may well have blended this rationalism with the suspicion that orthodoxy was virtually committed to ditheism, for Novatian puts2 in their mouth the argument, 'If the Father is one and the Son another, and if the Father is God and Christ God, then there is not one God, but two Gods are simultaneously brought forward, the Father and the Son'. By Artemon's time they were claiming to be the trustees of the true apostolic tradition, and seeking to show that their views about Christ had been accepted in the Church from the beginning down to the reign of Pope Zephyrinus (198–217), when the official teaching had been tampered with. In rejoinder Hippolytus had little difficulty in pointing to the grand succession of teachers going back to the first century, 'by all of whom Christ is acknowledged as divine' (ἐν οἷς ἅπασι θεολογεῖται ὁ Χριστός), and whose works 'proclaim Christ as both God and man'.

Paul of Samosata, perhaps the most interesting exponent of this type of thought, flourished rather later in the century, being formally condemned at the synod of Antioch held in 268. Further reference to his theory that Christ was an ordinary man inspired by the divine Wisdom will be made in the next chapter; here his attitude to the Godhead calls for remark. According to a sixth-century writer, 'Paul did not say that it was the self-subsistent Word Who was in Christ, but applied the title "Word" to God's commandment and ordinance, i.e. God ordered what He willed through the man, and so did it.… He did not say that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one and the same, but gave the name of God to the Father Who created all things, that of Son to the mere man, and that of Spirit to the grace which indwelt the apostles'. If true, this suggests that he was prepared to use the officially accepted Trinitarian formula, but only as a veil to cover a theology which was in fact unitarian. This conclusion is supported by the fact, reported in a fourth-century homoeusian document, that the bishops who outlawed him (they were Origenists committed to the belief in three eternal, subsistent Persons) thought it necessary to insist that the Word was an οὐσία, or substance. By this they meant that He was not simply a verbal utterance, without any subsistence of His own (this was presumably Paul's view), but a real Person distinct from the Father. There is further the report that the synod rejected the idea that the Word was ὁμοούσιος, i.e. the same in ousia or substance, with the Father. If this report is correct, it is conceivable that Paul, taking his cue from the language of his judges, may have used the term to protest against the sharp division between the Father and the Son which their assertion that they were distinct ousiai seemed to entail.

Paul's thought is notoriously difficult to evaluate, but the view that he was a strict unitarian, denying any subsistence or personality to the Word and teaching that the Son and the Spirit were merely the Church's names for the inspired man Jesus Christ and the grace which God poured upon the apostles, is probably accurate so far as it goes. It is possible, however, to represent him as an 'economic Trinitarian', responsible for a doctrine resembling that of Irenaeus and Tertullian, and still more that of the fourth-century Marcellus of Ancyra. The patristic tradition, we should note, tended increasingly to classify Paul with Sabellius and Marcellus, although at its earlier stages, as represented, for example, by the Ecthesis macrostichos2 (345) and Athanasius, it made no such juxtaposition, and depicted Paul exclusively in his character as an adoptionist. Further, in spite of certain ambiguous passages, all the evidence4 goes to suggest that he was opposed to the idea that the Word became a subsistent Person as the economy unfolded. Points of contact there may have been between the theology of Paul and that of Marcellus; but while the focus of the latter was interest in the unfolding Trinity, that of the former was psilanthropism, with an exaggerated monarchianism as its premiss.


4. Modalistic Monarchianism

If dynamic monarchianism was a relatively isolated phenomenon with a predominantly rationalist appeal, the same cannot be said of monarchianism proper, otherwise called modalism. This was a fairly widespread, popular trend of thought which could reckon on, at any rate, a measure of sympathy in official circles; and the driving-force behind it was the twofold conviction, passionately held, of the oneness of God and the full deity of Christ. What forced it into the open was the mounting suspicion that the former of these truths was being endangered by the new Logos doctrine and by the efforts of theologians to represent the Godhead as having revealed Itself in the economy as tri-personal. Any suggestion that the Word or Son was other than, or a distinct Person from, the Father seemed to the modalists (we recall that the ancient view that 'Father' signified the Godhead Itself was still prevalent) to lead inescapably to the blasphemy of two Gods.

As early as Justin's time we read of objections to his teaching that the Logos was 'something numerically other' (ἀριθμῷ ἕτερόν τι) than the Father; the critics argued that the Power issuing from the Godhead was distinct only verbally or in name, being a projection of the Father Himself. The first theologian, however, formally to state the monarchian position was Noetus of Smyrna, who was twice summoned before the presbyters of that city in the closing years of the second century; his contemporary, Hippolytus, and the fourth-century Epiphanius are our chief authorities for his teaching. Its pivot was the vigorous affirmation that there was only one God, the Father; patripassianism, or the idea that it was the Father Who suffered and underwent Christ's other human experiences, was a corollary which he seems to have embraced willingly enough. If Christ was God, as Christian faith took for granted, then He must be identical with the Father; otherwise He could not be God. Consequently, if Christ suffered, the Father suffered, since there could be no division in the Godhead. To his accusers he retorted,3 'What wrong have I done, glorifying one only God, Christ, Who was born, suffered and died?' For Scriptural support his followers appealed to such texts as Ex. 3:6 (taken with 20:3), and Is. 44:6, which proclaimed the uniqueness of God, Is. 45:14f. and Bar. 3:36–7, which suggested that this unique God had been present in Jesus Christ, and John 10:30, 14:8–10, and Rom. 9:5, which seemed to point to the identity of Father and Son. They rejected the Logos doctrine, arguing that the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel was to be taken allegorically.

Noetus was condemned, the presbyters confronting him with the Church's rule of faith; but a disciple of his, Epigonus, came to Rome, where he found an apt pupil in one Cleomenes during Zephyrinus's pontificate (198–217). Summarizing the position of the school, Hippolytus reports that they believed in one identical Godhead Which could be designated indifferently Father or Son; the terms did not stand for real distinctions, but were mere names applicable at different times. Indeed, the Godhead was like the universal monad postulated by the ancient philosopher Heracleitus (c. 502 B.C.), which comprised in itself mutually contradictory qualities, being at once divisible and indivisible, created and uncreated, mortal and immortal, etc. It is precisely this position, supported apparently with the same texts, that Tertullian combats in his Adversus Praxeam, written about 213. Who Praxeas was remains a mystery; he is a shadowy figure, and some have identified him ('Praxeas' could be a nickname, meaning 'busybody') with Noetus or Epigonus, or even (we shall see the point of this later) with Pope Callistus. Whoever he was, he seems to have taught that Father and Son were one identical Person (duos unum volunt esse, ut idem pater et filius habeatur), the Word having no independent subsistence and being a mere vox et sonus oris, and that consequently it was the Father Himself Who entered the Virgin's womb, so becoming, as it were, His own Son,3 and Who suffered, died and rose again. Thus this unique Person united in Himself mutually inconsistent attributes, being invisible and then visible, impassible and then passible.5 Yet Praxeas and his associates, it would seem, were in the end obliged to recognize a duality in the Lord, in the sense that the man Jesus was, strictly speaking, the Son, while the Christ, i.e. the divine element (spiritum, id est deum) was properly the Father. From this it was an easy step to the formula which excited both indignation and derision, 'So, while it is the Son Who suffers, the Father co-suffers' (compatitur). It is curious to observe how close at this point modalism came to Theodotus's adoptionism. Although starting from opposite poles, they reached rather similar conclusions about the Saviour as a man inspired by the Deity.

The naïveté of this earlier modalism stands out, but it was very soon to be given a more systematic, philosophical shape. The man responsible for this, it would appear, was Sabellius, who came to Rome towards the end of Zephyrinus's reign, was fiercely attacked by Hippolytus and, after enjoying the confidence of Pope Callistus (217–22), was eventually excommunicated by him. This later, more sophisticated modalism, known after its author as Sabellianism, tried to meet some of the objections to which the earlier brand was exposed. Sabellius, we are told, regarded the Godhead as a monad (his name for it was υἱοπάτωρ2) which expressed itself in three operations. He used the analogy of the sun, a single object which radiates both warmth and light; the Father was, as it were, the form or essence, and the Son and the Spirit His modes of self-expression. He may also have exploited the idea of the expansion or 'dilation' (π̇λατυσμός) of the divine monad, the Father by process of development projecting Himself first as Son and then as Spirit. Thus the one Godhead regarded as creator and law-giver was Father; for redemption It was projected like a ray of the sun, and was then withdrawn; then, thirdly, the same Godhead operated as Spirit to inspire and bestow grace.

Ideas like these suggest that Sabellius was conscious of the difficulties inherent in the simple modalism of his predecessors, and was prepared to turn to account features borrowed from the economic Trinitarianism of their critics. Part of his motive may have been to explain the government of the universe when the Godhead appeared as the Son, and also to obviate the charge of patripassianism. Unfortunately we cannot be sure that all the details of the position just summarized can be attributed to Sabellius himself. Most of the surviving evidence dates from a century or more after his lifetime, when his theology and that of the much more familiar Marcellus of Ancyra were hopelessly confused. One point which seems to be established is that the traditional belief that he spoke of Father, Son and Spirit as three prosopa, in the sense of masks or outward appearances, is erroneous. The term πρόσωπον, as we have already seen, was used by Hippolytus to signify the otherness, or separate subsistence, of the Son, as revealed in the economy, from the Father, and it is most unlikely that Sabellius used it with a diametrically opposite meaning. Indeed, Hippolytus clearly implies7 that for Callistus, whom he regarded as a Sabellian, the Godhead was but a single prosopon, i.e. individual or Person.


5. The Roman Theology

The theological activity we have been studying was largely concentrated in the West and at Rome. Yet none of the figures concerned in it had the standing of an official spokesman. Hippolytus and Tertullian might be described as free-lances, while most of the leading modalists were condemned as heretics. It might well be asked what was the attitude of official circles in the Roman church to the issues under discussion. The question is highly relevant, for it was in the first half of the third century that the standard pattern of Western Trinitarianism was taking shape. If one may anticipate, its starting-point was that profound conviction of the unity of God, the divine monarchy, which always dominated the minds of Western theologians, and of which modalism in all its forms was a well-intentioned distortion. In its formulation, however, it was greatly indebted, both for ideas and for terminology, to the classic statement of Tertullian.

At the initial stage the monarchian strain just mentioned was clearly in the ascendancy. This comes out in the attitude of Popes Zephyrinus (198–217) and Callistus (217–22), both of whom sympathized with the widespread popular reaction against the theories of Hippolytus and Tertullian, which they regarded as leading to ditheism. Hippolytus, for his part, considered Zephyrinus an out-and-out modalist, the patron of Cleomenes and the school which collected round him. In proof of this he represents the pope, 'an ignorant and uncultured man', as declaring, 'I know only one God, Christ Jesus, and none other Who was born and suffered', and at the same time protesting, 'It was not the Father Who died, but the Son'. The former statement is practically identical with Noetus's profession of faith,2 and many have in consequence acquiesced in the verdict of Hippolytus. Others have drawn the conclusion that he must somehow have misrepresented the pope. In view of the second of the two statements cited these judgments seem unduly hasty. There can be no doubt that Zephyrinus, like other 'simple and uncultured' Christians,2 viewed the new talk of 'Persons' of the Godhead with unconcealed suspicion; the former statement is evidence of his concern for the full deity of the incarnate Lord. The second statement, however, suggests that, however hostile he was to the ditheist-sounding language of the learned theologians, he saw the necessity of recognizing the reality of the distinction between Father and Son.

Hippolytus's estimate of Callistus was similar. He describes him as the dupe of Sabellius, and summarizes his teaching in two passages which seem to combine authentic dicta of the pope with possibly biased interpretations of his own. Bearing in mind that Callistus excommunicated Sabellius, we can fairly deduce the following points from them. First, he placed the greatest possible emphasis on the divine unity. The Godhead in his eyes was the single, indivisible spirit which pervades the universe, and constituted one object of presentation (if one may use such language of God), one being or 'Person' (πρόσωπον). Secondly, he admitted the distinction of Father and Word, the latter being the pre-temporal element which became incarnate; the Son, strictly speaking, was the historical figure, 'the man'. But he insisted that They were not separate beings ('the Father is not one thing—ἄλλο—and the Son another—ἄλλο—, but They are one and the same reality'), and that the Word was not 'another alongside the Father' (ἕτερος παρὰ τὸν πατέρα). Thirdly, since the Father was the unique divine spirit, Callistus could speak of Him as being identical with the Word, and even as becoming incarnate; but he was careful to point out that the Father only 'co-suffered' with the Son. Thoughts like these, though closely akin to the Praxeanism combated by Tertullian and understandably anathema to Hippolytus, do not brand Callistus as a thoroughgoing modalist. They suggest, rather, that while his sympathies lay with modalism, he was conscious of its difficulties, and was struggling to develop a compromise approach to the problem which, while taking account of the real distinction between the Father and the Word, would stress the truth that even so They were manifestations of one divine spirit and thus avoid the dangers (as he conceived them) inherent in any doctrine of two or three 'Persons'.

Zephyrinus and Callistus were thus conservatives holding fast to a monarchian tradition which antedated the whole movement of thought inaugurated by the Apologists. Conservative, too, though at a more sophisticated and learned level, was the monarchian theology developed by the Roman presbyter Novatian (c. 250), which reflected the influence of Hippolytus and Tertullian but was at several points more archaic than their teaching. According to him, the one and only Godhead is the Father, the author and sustainer of all reality. Nevertheless from Him, 'when He willed it, was born a Son, His Word'. This Word is no verbal nonentity (non in sono percussi aeris … accipitur), as modalism alleged, but has a subsistence of His own (in substantia … agnoscitur), being 'a second Person after the Father'. Three points in particular should be underlined. First, Novatian does not tie the generation of the Son to creation; since the Father is always Father, He must always have had a Son. Thus, while far from envisaging the idea of eternal generation, he is insistent that Christ 'existed substantially (in substantia, i.e. as a Person) before the foundation of the world'. Secondly, while on occasion speaking of 'the power of Godhead' or 'the divine majesty' being transmitted by the Father to the Son, and even of the community of being (substantiae … communionem) between Them, he normally defines Their relationship (in marked contrast to Tertullian) in terms of moral unity. This comes out strikingly in his avoidance, when expounding texts like 'I and the Father are one' and 'He who has seen me has seen the Father', of any suggestion of unity of essence. But, thirdly, being greatly concerned to escape the charge of teaching a duality of Gods brought against Hippolytus and Tertullian, he argues on the one hand that the deity bestowed by the Father on the Son for ever reverts to the Father, and on the other that the divine attributes belong in the true sense exclusively to Him.

Thus, for all his emphatic assertion of the Son's distinct subsistence as a Person, he succeeds in avoiding the ditheism he dreads only by strongly subordinating Him to the Father, or alternatively by making Him a passing moment in the divine life of the Father. His doctrine of the Holy Spirit is, for his date, rudimentary. While constantly speaking of the Father and the Son as Persons, he nowhere describes the Spirit as one, in spite of the clear teaching of Hippolytus and Tertullian on the point. In fact, he conceived of Him only as a divine gift poured out by the Father on the prophets, on the apostolic Church, on Christ at His baptism, and on the faithful to sanctify them and make them temples of God. In discussing the statement that God is spirit (John 4:24) he even asserts that 'every spirit is a creature', and one is left with the impression that he thought of the Holy Spirit as such. We are therefore not surprised to note that, in contrast again to Hippolytus and Tertullian, the term 'Trinity' is completely absent from his treatise. In this respect, too, his theology represents a withdrawal to a position which his predecessors had gone beyond, for unlike them he seems to have had no inkling of the Trinitarian nature of the Godhead. The view frequently encountered that his theology, though primitive in formulation, anticipated the orthodoxy of post-Nicene times represents a complete misreading of his position.


6. Clement and Origen

Meanwhile an immensely significant development was taking place in the East. This drew its initial inspiration from the catechetical school at Alexandria, the two thinkers responsible for it being Clement (fl. 200) and Origen (c. 185–c. 254). The latter a contemporary of Plotinus, both were profoundly influenced, in their attempts to understand and expound the triune Godhead, by the revived, or 'middle', Platonism2 fashionable at this time at Alexandria.

We can deal briefly with Clement, who was a moralist rather than a systematic theologian. For him God is absolutely transcendent, ineffable and incomprehensible; He is 'unity, but beyond unity, and transcending the monad', and yet somehow embracing all reality. This is the Father (we note the pre-Nicene connotation of the term); and He can be known only through His Word, or Son, Who is His image and inseparable from Him, His mind or rationality.4 Like the Nous of middle Platonism and of Neo-Platonism, the Word is at once unity and plurality, comprising in Himself the Father's ideas, and also the active forces by which He animates the world of creatures. His generation from the Father is without beginning ('the Father is not without His Son; for along with being Father, He is Father of the Son'6); and He is essentially one with Him, since the Father is in Him and He in the Father.8 The Spirit, thirdly, is the light issuing from the Word which, divided without any real division, illuminates the faithful; He is also the power of the Word which pervades the world and attracts men to God. Thus we have a Trinity which, though in all its lineaments Platonic, Clement unhesitatingly identifies with Christian theism. As he writes,10 'O wondrous mystery! One is the Father of the universe, and one also the Word of the universe; the Holy Spirit, again, is one and everywhere the same.' He clearly distinguishes the Three, and the charge of modalism, based on his lack of any technical term to designate the Persons, is groundless; and if he appears to subordinate the Son to the Father and the Spirit to the Son, this subordination implies no inequality of being, but is the corollary of his Platonic conception of a graded hierarchy.

Origen's Trinitarianism was a brilliant reinterpretation of the traditional triadic rule of faith, to which as a churchman he was devoted, in terms of the same middle Platonism. At the apex of his system, as the source and goal of all existence, transcending mind and being itself, he placed God the Father, 'altogether Monad, and indeed, if I may so express it, Henad'. He alone is God in the strict sense (αὐτόθεος), being alone 'ingenerate' (ἀγέννητος); and it is significant that Christ spoke of Him (John 17:3) as 'the only true God'. Being perfect goodness and power, He must always have had objects on which to exercise them; hence He has brought into existence a world of spiritual beings, or souls, coeternal with Himself.3 To mediate, however, between His absolute unity and their multiplicity, He has His Son, His express image, the meeting place of a plurality of 'aspects' (ἐπίνοιαι: these represent the ideas of Platonism proper) which explain His twofold relation to the Father and the world. These 'aspects' stand for the manifold characters which the Word presents either in His eternal being (e.g. Wisdom, Truth, Life) or as incarnate (e.g. Healer, Door, Resurrection). Being outside time and immutable, the Father begets the Son by an eternal act (ἀεὶ γεννᾷ αὐτόν), so that it cannot be said that 'there was when He was not'; further, the Son is God, though His deity is derivative and He is thus a 'secondary God' (δεύτερος θεός6). The parallel with Albinus, who believed in a supreme Father Who organized matter through a second God (Whom he, however, identified with the World-Soul), is striking; as is the fact that both thinkers envisaged8 the generation of the Son as the result of His contemplation of the Father. But, thirdly (and here he realizes that Christianity parts company with philosophy, relying on revelation alone), there is the Holy Spirit, 'the most honourable of all the beings brought into existence through the Word, the chief in rank of all the beings originated by the Father through Christ'.

The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are, Origen states, 'three Persons' (ὑποστάσεις). This affirmation that each of the Three is a distinct hypostasis from all eternity, not just (as for Tertullian and Hippolytus) as manifested in the 'economy', is one of the chief characteristics of his doctrine, and stems directly from the idea of eternal generation. Hupostasis and ousia were originally synonyms, the former Stoic and the latter Platonic, meaning real existence or essence, that which a thing is; but while hupostasis retains this connotation in Origen, he more frequently gives it the sense of individual subsistence, and so individual existent. The error of modalism, he contends,4 lies in treating the Three as numerically indistinguishable (μὴ διαφέρειν τῷ ἀριθμῷ), separable only in thought, 'one not only in essence but also in subsistence' (ἓν οὐ μόνον οὐσίᾳ ἀλλὰ καὶ ὑποκειμένῳ). The true teaching, on his view, is that the Son is 'other in subsistence than the Father' (ἕτερος καθʼ ὑποκείμενον), or even that the Father and the Son 'are two things in respect of Their Persons, but one in unanimity, harmony and identity of will' (ὄντα δύο τῇ ὑποστάσει πράγματα, ἓν δὲ τῇ ὁμονοίᾳ καὶ τῇ συμφωνίᾳ καὶ τῇ ταὐτότητι τοῦ βουλήματος). Thus, while really distinct, the Three are from another point of view one; as he expresses it, 'we are not afraid to speak in one sense of two Gods, in another sense of one God'.7

For Origen the oneness of the Son with the Father is important, but His independence is theologically prior. Sometimes, as the passage quoted shows, he represents the unity as a moral one. Elsewhere he appeals to Scripture, which declares that man and wife, though distinct beings, can be one flesh, and that, on a higher plane, the righteous man and Christ can be one spirit. So on a higher plane still Father and Son, though distinct, are one God. The Son, moreover, is the Father's image, the reflection of His glory. By themselves, however, thoughts like these hardly do justice to the whole of Origen's teaching, the pivot of which was that the Son had been begotten, not created, by the Father. Where he seems2 to speak of Him as a creature, his language is a conscious concession to the usage of Prov. 8:22 ('The Lord created me as a beginning', etc.) and Col. 1:15 ('First-begotten of all creation'), and should not be pressed. As the Father's offspring, He participates in His Godhead; He is Son of God by nature, and His nature is united to the Father's. He issues from Him as the will from the mind, which suffers no division in the process.4 One must be careful, however, not to attribute to Origen any doctrine of consubstantiality between Father and Son. Appeal is often made to a famous passage in which, after deducing from Wisdom 7:25 that the Son is 'a breath of the power of God, a pure effluence of the glory of the Almighty', he seems to point out that 'both these illustrations suggest a community of substance between Father and Son. For an effluence would appear to be ὁμοούσιος, i.e. of one substance with, that body of which it is an effluence or vapour'. But this text, and several others expressing the same or similar ideas, remain open to grave suspicion because they survive only in Rufinus's whitewashing Latin translation. In works which have been transmitted in the Greek original Origen always represents the union of Father and Son, as has been noted, as one of love, will and action.

Of the Spirit Origen states, 'He supplies those who, because of Him and their participation in Him, are called sanctified with the matter, if I may so describe it, of their graces. This same matter of graces is effected by God, is ministered by Christ, and achieves individual subsistence (ὑφεστώσης) as the Holy Spirit.' Thus the ultimate ground of His being is the Father, but it is mediated to Him by the Son, from Whom also He derives all His distinctive attributes.

It is not altogether fair to conclude, as many have done, that Origen teaches a triad of disparate beings rather than a Trinity; but the strongly pluralist strain in his Trinitarianism is its salient feature. The Three, on his analysis, are eternally and really distinct; They are separate hypostases or even, in his crude-sounding language, 'things'. No doubt he tries to meet the most stringent demands of monotheism by insisting that the fulness of unoriginate Godhead is concentrated in the Father, Who alone is 'the fountain-head of deity' (πηγὴ τῆς θεότητος). 'But the Son and the Spirit are also in their degrees divine, possessing, though derivatively, all the characteristics of deity; distinct from the world of creatures, they cooperate with the Father and mediate the divine life flowing from Him.' This vision of 'the adorable, everlasting Triad',3 of which he detected an anticipation in the thrice-repeated 'holy' of Isaiah's seraphim, was to inspire generations of later Greek theologians. As it is formulated by Origen, however, the underlying structure of thought is unmistakably borrowed from contemporary Platonism. A striking illustration of this is the fact that, in addition to the Son or Word, he conceived of the whole world of spiritual beings (what he called logikoi or noes) as being coeternal with the Father. Indeed, their relation to the Word is precisely parallel to that of the Word, at a higher level, to the Father; they are images of Him, as He is of the Father, and in their degree are equally entitled to be called gods. The reason for this is the axiom, which Origen picked up from middle Platonism, that the Father must always have had a world on which to exercise His power; but its effect is to undermine the Christian idea of a triune God Who transcends the contingent order.

In a more limited field the impact of Platonism reveals itself in the thoroughgoing subordinationism which is integral to Origen's Trinitarian scheme. The Father, as we have seen, is alone αὐτόθεος; so St. John, he points out, accurately describes the Son simply as θεός, not ὁ θεός. In relation to the God of the universe He merits a secondary degree of honour; for He is not absolute goodness and truth, but His goodness and truth are a reflection and image of the Father's.3 The same goes for His activity; the Son is the Father's agent (ὑπηρέτης), carrying out His commands, as in the case of creation. For this reason he concludes5 that 'we should not pray to any generate being, not even to Christ, but only to the God and Father of the universe, to Whom our Saviour Himself prayed'; if prayer is offered to Christ, it is conveyed by Him to the Father. Indeed, the Son and the Spirit are transcended by the Father just as much as, if not more than, They Themselves transcend the realm of inferior beings; and if sometimes Origen's language seems to contradict this, suggesting7 that the Son is God from the beginning, very Word, absolute Wisdom and truth, the explanation is that He may appear such to creatures, but from the viewpoint of the ineffable Godhead He is the first in the chain of emanations. This conception of a descending hierarchy, itself the product of his Platonizing background, is epitomized in the statement that, whereas the Father's action extends to all reality, the Son's is limited to rational beings, and the Spirit's to those who are being sanctified.


7. The Influence of Origen

Such meagre evidence as survives of Greek Trinitarianism in the latter half of the third century testifies to the extent of Origen's influence. Some theologians gave prominence to his emphasis on the Son's essential kinship to the Father, others to his subordinationism. Among the former may be reckoned Theognostus, head of the catechetical school at Alexandria (fl. 250–80). While he called the Son a creature and restricted His activity to rational beings, he also declared that His substance (οὐσία) was derived, not out of nothingness, but out of the Father's substance, as brightness comes from light or steam from water. Just as the brightness and the steam were neither identical with the sun or with water nor alien (ἀλλότριον) from them, so the substance of the Son was neither identical with nor alien from the Father; He was an effluence (ἀπόρροια) of the Father's substance, which in the process suffered no division. His successor, Pierius (fl. 280–300), seems to have spoken of the Father and the Son as two substances or natures (οὐσίαι; φύσεις), clearly using these terms as equivalents of Origen's 'hypostases'. Gregory Thaumaturgus († c. 270), the apostle of Pontus, was willing on occasion to speak of the Son, in Origenist fashion, as 'a creature or a thing made' (κτίσμα; ποίημα). His formal teaching, however, as set out in his creed, was to the effect that 'there is one God, Father of the living Word … perfect begetter of the perfect begotten.… There is one Lord, unique out of unique, God out of God, impress and image of Godhead, effective Word.… And there is one Holy Spirit, having His subsistence from God and being made manifest by the Son … in Whom is manifested God the Father, Who is above all and in all, and God the Son, Who is through all. So there is a perfect Triad … in the Triad there is nothing either created or servile, nor anything brought in, as if it formerly did not exist and was subsequently introduced. Thus neither was the Son ever wanting to the Father, nor the Spirit to the Son.'

The best-known exponent of Origen's subordinationist strain is his pupil Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria. In the late fifties of the century he was instigated to set out what he considered to be the orthodox position by an outbreak of Sabellianism in the Libyan Pentapolis, which fell under his jurisdiction. Not unnaturally, since the rebuttal of modalism was his object, he thrust the personal distinction between Father and Son into the foreground; and the Sabellian group was able to find at any rate one of his letters, addressed to bishops Ammonius and Euphranor, full of indiscretions. They made a formal complaint to the Roman pope, who was also named Dionysius, and accused the Alexandrian bishop (a) of making a sharp division, amounting to separation, between Father and Son (διαιρεῖ καὶ μακρύνει καὶ μερίζει τὸν υἱὸν ἀπὸ τοῦ πατρός2); (b) of denying the Son's eternity, and stating that the Father had not always been Father and that 'the Son was not before He came into existence'; (c) of naming the Father without the on and the Son without the Father, as if They were not inseparable in Their very being;4 (d) of failing to describe the Son as ὁμοούσιος with the Father; and (e) of stating that the Son was a creature (ποίημα καὶ γενητόν), just as much different from the Father in substance (ξένον κατʼ οὐσίαν) as a vine from its vinedresser, a boat from the shipwright who made it, etc.

There is no doubt that Dionysius had used language unfortunate in itself and in its implications; in the following century Athanasius tried to whitewash him, but Basil's judgment was surer when he remarked8 that Dionysius's anti-Sabellian zeal had carried him to the opposite extreme. Dionysius of Rome issued a brief which, without mentioning his name, in effect criticized Dionysius of Alexandria, and then went on to expound a positive theology which shows how powerful was the influence of Novatian at Rome. The pope was clearly shocked by the Origen-inspired doctrine of three hypostases, which seemed to him to undermine the divine monarchy. Those Alexandrian theologians who taught it were, he implied, virtual tritheists, splitting the indivisible oneness of the Deity into 'three powers, three absolutely separate hypostases, three divinities'. At all costs the indivisibility of the holy Monad must be maintained; the Word and the Spirit must therefore be regarded as inseparable from the God of the universe, and must be summed up and gathered to Him. This is the old idea that the almighty Father (in the old sense of the unique Godhead) can never have been without His Word and His Spirit since They belong to His very being. In harmony with this, the pope continued, if Christ is in the Father (cf. John 14:11), if He is His Word, Wisdom and Power (cf. 1 Cor. 1:24), He must always have existed, and it is blasphemous to speak of Him as a creature or to say that there was when He was not. According to Ps. 109:3 (LXX: 'Before the dawn I begat thee out of my belly'), and Prov. 8:25 ('Before all the hills he begets me'), His origin was no act of creation, but 'a divine and ineffable generation'.

Dionysius of Alexandria made an elaborate rejoinder, in which he restated his position in less equivocal, more cautious terms, although without surrendering any of its essential features. He freely acknowledged the impropriety of some of his expressions and analogies, but complained that his teaching had not been judged as a whole; and he skilfully adopted the pope's language in reformulating his own doctrine. First, he repudiated the charge of separating Father, Son and Spirit. The Three are obviously inseparable, as is demonstrated by Their very titles: a Father implies a Son, a Son implies a Father, and Spirit implies both the source from which and the medium by which it proceeds forth.2 Even so, his definition of Them as 'three hypostases' must be retained, inasmuch as They are three, unless the Triad is to be dissolved. Secondly, he affirmed unambiguously that the Son is eternal. God was always Father, and therefore Christ was always Son, just as if the sun were eternal the daylight would also be everlasting; the one cannot be conceived without the other.4 Thirdly, dealing with the allegation that he had not employed ὁμοούσιος, he pointed out that the term was non-Scriptural. Nevertheless he accepted its meaning, as the figures he had chosen proved. Parents and children, for example, are different people, but are 'homogeneous' (ὁμογενεῖς); the plant and its seed or root are different, yet of the same nature (ὁμοφυῆ). So the river and its source are different in form and name, but consist of the selfsame water. He evidently interpreted homoousios as meaning 'sharing the same nature', in the generic sense, as Origen himself may well have done. His whole object, it would appear, was to correct the false impression, as he judged it, that his doctrine of three hypostases excluded the essential unity of the Three. He summarized his position in the balanced formula, 'We both expand the Monad into the Triad without dividing It'—thus he concedes to his Roman colleague that the Son and the Spirit are, as it were, projections of the indivisible divine essence—'and again we sum up the Triad in the Monad without subtracting from It'—that is, the oneness must be acknowledged, but not at the cost of failing to recognize the three Persons.

The incident supplies an instructive illustration of the very different lines along which Western and Eastern theologians were working. Scholars have often sought to explain the clash away as the result of a mere misunderstanding over terminology. To a certain extent it was that. For example, the pope may well have inferred, on sound etymological grounds, that ὑπόστασις was the Greek equivalent for substantia, which he had learned from Tertullian signified the indivisible concrete reality of the Godhead. Hence his shocked conclusion that his namesake's doctrine of three hypostases was tantamount to tritheism. But the matter went much deeper than words. Western Trinitarianism, as we noticed earlier, had long been marked by a monarchian bias. What was luminously clear to the theologians representing it was the divine unity; so mysterious did they find the distinctions within that unity that, though fully convinced of their reality, they were only beginning, haltingly and timidly, to think of them as 'Persons'. In the East, where the intellectual climate was impregnated with Neo-Platonic ideas about the hierarchy of being, an altogether different, confessedly pluralistic approach had established itself. The disagreement was thus theological at bottom, and was destined to manifest itself again in the following century.



General. G. Bardy, 'Trinité' (art. in Dict. Théol. Cath.); G. Kretschmar, Studien zur frühchristlichen Trinitätstheologie (Tübingen, 1956); J. Lebreton, Histoire du dogme de la Trinité (Paris, 1928); F. Loofs, 'Christologie-Kirchenlehre' (art. in Hauck's Realencyk.); R. A. Norris, God and World in Early Christian Theology (London, 1967); G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (London, 2 ed. 1952); A. E. J. Rawlinson (ed.), Essays on the Trinity and the Incarnation (London, 1928).

Special. É. Amann, 'Hippolyte' (art. in Dict. Théol. Cath.); A. d'Alès, La Théologie de Tertullien and La Théologie d'Hippolyte (Paris, 1905 and 1906); G. Bardy, 'Monarchianisme' (art. in Dict. Théol. Cath.); H. J. Carpenter, 'Popular Christianity and the Theologians in the Early Centuries' (art. in Journ. Theol. Stud., 1963); H. Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition (Oxford, 1966); J. Daniélou, Origen (Eng. trans., London, 1955); E. Evans, Tertullian's Treatise against Praxeas (London, 1948); C. L. Feltoe, The Letters of Dionysius of Alexandria (Cambridge, 1904); J. Lebreton, 'Le Désaccord de la foi populaire et de la théologie savante dansl'eglise chrétienne du 3 me siècle' (art. in Rev. d'hist. eccl., 1923 and 1924); C. W. Lowry, 'Origen as Trinitarian' (art. in Journ. Theol. Stud., 1936); R. A. Markus, 'Trinitarian Theology and the Economy' (art. in Journ. Theol. Stud., 1958); P. Nautin, Hippolyte contre les hérésies (Paris, 1949); H. de Riedmatten, Les Actes du procès de Paul de Samosate (Fribourg en Suisse, 1952); M. Simonetti, 'Sul De Trinitate di Novaziano' (Studi in onore di A. Monterverdi 2: 1959); G. C. Stead, 'Divine Substance in Tertullian' (art. in Journ. Theol. Stud., 1963); R. Walzer, Galen on Jews and Christians (Oxford, 1949); M. F. Wiles, 'Eternal Generation' (art. in Journ. Theol. Stud., 1961).


Kelly, J. N. D. (1977). Early Christian Doctrines (Fifth, Revised, pp. 109–137). London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury.

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