Were the Doctrines of the Trinity and the Dual Nature of Christ invented in the 4th and 5th Centuries?
Post Author: Darrell
(This post originally appeared on Darrell’s Thoughts and Reflections and is being reposted here for the benefit of TQA readers.)
One of the charges I often hear leveled against Christianity today is that both the Doctrines of the Trinity and the Dual Nature of Christ were “invented” by the Church in the fourth and fifth centuries, during the Ecumenical Councils. Proponents of these charges claim that the Church prior to the Ecumenical Councils believed neither in the Trinity, nor in the Dual Nature of Christ. I freely admit that the language by which the Church codified these doctrines was fortified in the Ecumenical Councils. However, I believe those who charge that the Church invented the doctrines themselves in the Councils and that the Church prior to the Councils did not hold to them are gravely mistaken.
One of the earliest Church Fathers to articulate a basic understanding of the Trinity and the Dual Nature of Christ is Saint Ignatius. Saint Ignatius was the third Bishop of Antioch, serving from 70 AD to 107 AD. He was a disciple of the Apostle John, and Church Tradition teaches that he was the child Christ held in His arms when He said, in Matthew 18:3, “. . . unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Shortly after the turn of the second century, Saint Ignatius wrote several Epistles while in captivity on the road traveling to his martyrdom. Seven of these epistles have survived to our day. In the seventh chapter of his Epistle to the Ephesians, he says:
But our Physician is the only true God, the Father and Begetter of the only-begotten Son. We have also as a Physician the Lord our God, Jesus the Christ, the only-begotten Son and Word, before time began, but who afterwards became also man, of Mary the virgin. For “the Word was made flesh.” Being incorporeal, He was in a body; being impassible, He was in a passible body; being immortal, He was in a mortal body; being life, He became subject to corruption, that He might free our souls from death and corruption, and heal them, and might restore them to health, when they were diseased with ungodliness and wicked lusts.
There are several aspects of this passage which demonstrate that Saint Ignatius held beliefs consistent with the Doctrines of the Trinity and the Dual Nature of Christ. First, he refers to two separate Persons, God the Father and Jesus Christ, yet he calls both of them God. This is completely consistent with Nicene Theology, which teaches that both the Father and the Son are God by nature/essence. The Nicene Creed calls Christ “true God of true God”, saying He is “of one essence with the Father” as God. Had Ignatius been an Arian or had he held to a non-Trinitarian Doctrine that teaches Christ to be something less than or other than God, He would not have referred to Him as God.
Second, Ignatius refers to Jesus Christ as begotten “before time began”. This is almost word for word identical to the Nicene Creed, which says, “I believe in. . . one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. . .” Some today claim that the Early Church believed Christ’s being ”begotten” of the Father was in relation to His birth from Mary (specifically, this is an LDS claim). However, Ignatius’ comment here demonstrates that the Early Church’s understanding of Christ’s nature as “only-begotten” was a relationship with the Father that was “before time began” and has nothing to do with His earthly incarnation. It is interesting to note that the Greek word translated as “only-begotten” both here and in the New Testament is ”monogenes”. Monogenes literally means “one of a kind,” and to the Church Fathers it connoted Christ being of the same nature as the Father. . . something that was entirely unique to Him.
In addition to calling Christ God and claiming Him to be the “only-begotten” of the Father “before time began”, Ignatius tells us that “afterwards” Christ “became man”. Ignatius then goes on to point out some aspects that Christ’s becoming man added to His nature. He says that although Christ was incorporeal, He was in a body; although He was impassible, He was in a passible body; although He was immortal, He was in a mortal body; although He was life, He became subject to corruption. These differing aspects of Christ’s nature, aspects that are polar opposites to one another, speak to Christ having two natures, one as God and one as man, and demonstrate that Saint Ignatius understood Christ in this manner. As God, Christ was incorporeal, impassible, immortal, and life itself. However, as man He was corporeal, passible, mortal, and subject to corruption.
Last, Ignatius explains that Christ took on our nature in order to free our souls from death and corruption, heal us, and restore us to health. This speaks to the true reason for the Doctrines of the Trinity and Dual Nature of Christ. Rather than being doctrines for doctrine’s sake, created as purely intellectual pieces of information to be discussed by dry theologians over coffee and tea, they are doctrines directly tied to our understanding of how Christ redeemed us. He was the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, true God of true God. Yet He chose to take upon Himself our nature, becoming man for our sakes, so that He could unite our nature to the Divine Nature in His Person, giving us a rebirth in Him. Had He not been God and had He not taken on our nature, He would have been unable to redeem us. The Church understood this from the earliest times, and as the writings of Saint Ignatius show us, it is not an understanding created in the fourth and fifth centuries. It is Apostolic Doctrine that has been handed down to us and is a product of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church.