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.

  • Hello Darrel, I’m under the impression that the earliest mention of Jesus divinity can be found at the end of the Gospel of Mathew, where Jesus said he was the being who sent the prophets to Jerusalem who were eventually killed.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son


  • Pingback: How early are the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity? | Wintery Knight()

  • drew

    Darrel — The words of Ignatius that you shared can be shown to align with LDS doctrine, including the “begotten” part since we also believe Christ was spiritually begotten of God in premortality. In fact, the Bible says we ALL are spirit children of the Father, and as such we are Christ’s brother (John 20:17). Modern day revelation also clarified that Christ was the first-begotten spirit, which though not clearly elaborated by the Bible, is supported by the below references (which points away from your version of “only begotten”):

    I will make him my firstborn: Ps. 89:27 .
    I the Lord, the first: Isa. 41:4 .
    his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many: Rom. 8:29 .
    the image of the invisible God, the firstborn: Col. 1:15 .
    he bringeth in the firstbegotten into the world: Heb. 1:6 .
    To the general assembly and church of the firstborn: Heb. 12:23
    I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: Rev. 1:11
    the Amen … the beginning of the creation of God: Rev. 3:14 .

    As spirits, we dwelled with our Father before mortality. Our premortal existence as spirits was definitely an early Christian belief, but it was also unfortunately one of the doctrines singled out for debate by post apostolic theologians — and as you know, it was on of the losers! Below are some Biblical references to our premortal existence as spirit children of God:

    God of the spirits of all flesh: Num. 16:22 . ( Num. 27:16 . )
    all the sons of God shouted for joy: Job 38:7 .
    the spirit shall return unto God who gave it: Eccl. 12:7 .
    Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee: Jer. 1:5 .
    who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind: John 9:2 .
    poets have said, For we are also his offspring: Acts 17:28 .
    For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate: Rom. 8:29 .
    chosen us in him before the foundation of the world: Eph. 1:4 .
    subjection unto the Father of spirits: Heb. 12:9 .
    angels which kept not their first estate: Jude 1:6 .

    So my point is that we can’t use Ignatius’ words to support the Trinity doctrine. The Trinity truly stands or falls on one principle, which is the classification of God in terms of a divine “ousia”, or substance/ essence — because it’s the sharing of this ousia that makes the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost one God from an ontological standpoint. Origen is considered the first to classify God as a divine ousia, though not in the Trinity sense because he believed the Son’s divinity was less than the Father’s. Nevertheless this ousia classification eventually gained acceptance, after which the debate became about whether the Father and Son were the same substance, similar substance, or different substance, with many degrees of variation in between. We know that after many years of deliberation, the term “homoosious” ( i.e. “same substance”, also termed “consubstantiality”) eventually emerged victorious, and thus the Trinity doctrine was born. Of course there were still details to work out, including the “Filioque” question of who the Holy Spirit proceeded from, the results of which again show that all of this doctrine originated from man, not God.

    Those who disagreed with the victory of “homoosious” in this great debate were usually labeled as Arians or some such thing. However, what if the whole debate was a sham to start with? The question that first needs to be answered is this: was it even correct to to classify God in terms of a substance? Well, if Origen was a prophet, and God told him to do so, then yes it would be correct. But we know he was not a prophet, nor did he claim to be — he was a theologian/philosopher who thrived on rational argument and speculation. And you probably know that many of his theological conclusions are not accepted by the church today. For example, his Platonic background made him cringe at the thought of deity with a physical body, so he argued that Christ’s resurrection was spiritual, not physical.

    And if that’s not proof enough that the “ousia” God is a false doctrine, it is a known fact that the whole concept of classifying things in terms of ousia originated in Greek philosophy — indeed Aristotle’s “Metaphysics” was an exploration of this very topic. Is it a coincidence that the writings of Origen, as well as other Fathers, illustrate an undeniable influence by these same philosophers, in this era of Hellenistic dominance? How much more proof do we need that this originated from humans, not God?

    Well I’ll give you one more that hopefully means something to you, which is that the Bible most certainly does not support this classification of God as a substance. It’s just not there, if anything it teaches the opposite. There are actually a few evidences that early Christians agreed that it was incorrect to classify God this way, but I’ll just share one that I recently happened upon, which is the Creed of Constantinople of 359. Obviously this Creed has been swept under the rug because it detracts from ratified doctrine — either way I was struck by how it said that “the people”, i.e. members of the Christian Church, were offended by the ousia classification, and that it should be rejected because it’s “not contained even in the sacred writings” (excerpt below). This is just one indication that the pushers of the whole “ousia” classification were actually Christian radical “progressives” trying to gain acceptance of pagans and philosophers by incorporating Hellenistic elements, while the more traditional Christians tried to keep things the way the Apostles had left them.

    Excerpt from the “Creed of Constaninople of 359”:

    “But since the term ousia [substance or essence], which was used by the fathers in a very simple and intelligible sense, but not being understood by the people, has been a cause of offense, we have thought proper to reject it, as it is not contained even in the sacred writings; and that no mention of it should be made in future, inasmuch as the holy Scriptures have nowhere mentioned the substance of the Father and of the Son. Nor ought the “subsistence” of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit to be even named. But we affirm that the Son is like the Father, in such a manner as the sacred Scriptures declare and teach. Let therefore all heresies which have been already condemned, or may have arisen of late, which are opposed to this exploitation of the faith, be anathema.”

    Trinity doctrine aside, the “ousia” concept was even more damaging in the sense that it classified humans as a distinct substance from God, meaning it no longer made sense to say that we were His spirit offspring, and thus it also no longer made sense to say we could progress to become like Him — as such a transformation now brought to mind some sort of metaphysical mumbo jumbo like the alchemical transformation of lead into gold.

    When Joseph Smith restored the doctrine that God was not a separate substance, but our literal Heavenly Father; and that His glory was not founded upon a substance, but His intelligence, suddenly everything made sense, as it clarified that our path to becoming like our Father was simply a path of learning! This also brought into view the real reason why we came here to Earth — as the separation from God, and the opposition we face every day, was the only way we could learn to “prize the good”, and thereby be on the path to developing all the godly attributes that Christ pleaded for us to develop. Maybe the most important attribute is faith, since that is how we invoke the powers of Heaven. Hopefully you would agree that we would have no way of developing real substantial faith if the Fall had never happened. The sad part of this is that the process of developing faith is not easy, which is often why it results in the loss of good people like you.

  • drew

    I should also clarify that we do believe that both Christ and the Holy Ghost are divine like the Father, but again not because of a shared substance. It is because they share in the Father’s comprehension of all things — His omniscience.