What is the history of the doctrine of the Trinity?

To be a Christian is also to be a member of the universal church. The church includes everyone from every nation, culture, language, and race whose saving faith is in Jesus Christ. Practically, this means that a Christian is part of a tremendous heritage and does not come to the Scriptures apart from community with all of God’s people from throughout all of the church’s history. Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians confess together that the God of the Bible is Trinitarian.

The earliest Christians were Jewish believers. As Jews, they believed that there is only one God and that this God is Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is important to note that the early Christians continued to affirm their belief in one God. But they also confessed belief in Father, Son, and Spirit. While the Apostles’ Creed was not written by the twelve disciples, it is ancient, dating back to the second century. It begins, “I believe in God the Father,” continues with “and in the Lord Jesus Christ,” and culminates with “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

Tertullian, who converted to Christianity just before AD 200 and defended Christianity prolifically until he died around AD 220, initiated the use of the Latin words Trinitas, persona, and substantia(Trinity, person, and substanceor essence) to express the biblical teaching that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one in divine essence but distinguished in relationship as persons within the inner life of God himself.

The three major ecumenical councils are worth noting in order to trace the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. These gatherings of church leaders discussed major theological issues for the purpose of recognizing what the church believed. One reason the councils were called was to respond to heretical teaching. The Council of Nicaea (AD 325) included some three hundred bishops, many of whom bore the scars of persecution, and was convened primarily to resolve the debate over Arianism, the false teaching that Christ was a creature, an angel who was the highest created being, but not God. The Council of Nicaea concluded that the Son was one substance (homoousios) with the Father. The Logos, who was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, is God himself. He is not likeGod, but is fullyand eternally God.

With the deity of Christ officially recognized, the Council of Constantinople (AD 381) extended the discussion to the identification of the Holy Spirit within the Godhead. Constantinople expanded the Nicene Creed, making the creed fully Trinitarian, and officially condemned Arianism. It solidified the orthodox doctrine of the full humanity of Jesus Christ. The Council of Chalcedon (AD  451) focused   on the relationship of Christ’s humanity to his divinity (known as hypostatic union) and issued the formula of Chalcedon, which became the orthodox statement on the person of Christ.  Hypostatic unionmeans that Jesus is one person with two natures and therefore simultaneously fully God and fully human.

Christian history is really a family history of God’s people. At various times, councils would meet and people who loved God and devoted their life to God’s Word would prayerfully come to an agreement about what the Bible said on a vital issue. The contributions of the councils to the doctrine of the Trinity can be summarized under four headings:

  • One Being, Three Persons.God is one being and has one essence. There is no God but the triune God who exists eternally in three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The whole God is in each person, and each person is the whole God. Threeness of person is not just a matter of action or revelation but of eternal being.
  • One identical divine substance is shared completely by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Any essential characteristic that belongs to one of the three is shared by the others. Each of the three divine persons is eternal, each almighty, none greater or less than another, each God, and yet together being but one God.
  • This concept, also called circumincession or interpenetration, refers to the loving interrelation, partnership, or mutual dependence of the three persons. Some define this in terms of dance, leading to all sorts of strange speculations. But this is a mistake that comes from a misunderstanding of Greek. Dance looks the same in its transliteration but is spelled differently in Greek. Since all three persons are fully God and the whole God is in each of the three, it follows that the three mutually indwell or contain one another, as Jesus said: “Just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you.”1 This oneness of indwelling is not just in their functioning in this world but even more foundationally in their eternal existence as Trinity.
  • The Order of the Persons.There is a clear order of the relations between the three fully divine persons: from the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit.

As the doctrine of the Trinity developed, theologians struggled to explain the eternal relationships of the Trinity. What differentiates Father from Son from Spirit? Using philosophical methodology, they worked backward from God’s economic working in the world to define his eternal relationships. The Bible says the Father sent the Spirit to conceive Jesus in the womb of Mary.2 Jesus is therefore referred to as the “only begotten [monogenes] Son.”3 Theologians extended this begetting in history back into the eternal Trinity and posited that the Son is eternally begotten of or generated by the Father. Similarly, they went from Jesus’ historical promise to his disciples, “I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father,”4 to posit that the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father. Thus, the Nicene Creed (325) defined the Son as “begotten of the Father.” The First Council of Constantinople (381) added the definition that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” This formulation was universally accepted by the church at the Council of Chalcedon (451).

Theologians of the Western church often extended the procession phrase to read that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son [filioque].” This revision of the Nicene Creed was made at the Third Council of Toledo (589) and was officially endorsed in 1017. This insertion of a single Latin word to an ecumenical creed caused a crisis of authority that eventually led to the split between the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Western Roman church in 1054. The subtle theological points were far less responsible for the split than the ecclesiastical power struggle over the authority of the pope.

The whole attempt to define the eternal relations in the immanent or ontological Trinity seems misguided. First, God has given us no revelation of the nature of their eternal relations. We should follow the command of the Bible: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God”5 and refuse to speculate. Second, the Apostles’ Creed defines the Son as “begotten, not made.” The point was that something begotten was of the same substance as the one who does the begetting. But the term “begotten” could never be defined with any clarity, so it was of little use. Third, begottenunavoidably implies a beginning of the one begotten. That would certainly lend support to the Arian heresy that the Son is a created being and not the Creator God. For these reasons it is to omit the creedal terms “begotten” and “proceeds” from our definition of Trinity. Our authority is not in creeds but in Scripture.

We stand with the universal Trinitarian definition of the church to confess that God is one God, eternally existing in three persons, Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each of the three shares fully the one divine essence. God is not simply unity, but eternally exists in rich, loving fellowship as the one and only God. 

How do you feel when you pause to consider that God’s people from various nations, ages, languages, and cultures have spent thousands of years meeting and studying the Bible together to help us understand the Trinity?

1John 17:21.
2Luke 1:31–35; Matt. 1:20.
3John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5; 1 John 4:9; 5:1. The KJV uses “begotten.”
4John 15:26.
5Deut. 29:29.