Session 11: The Trinitarian Controversy, part 1

CoS 222 - Theological Heritage II: The Early Church

Session 11: The Trinitarian Controversy, Part 1


Intro.: The fourth century was a watershed in Christian history for three reasons. First, it saw the conversion of the Emperor Constantine and the beginnings of Christianity's long status as an official religion in Western society. Second it contained the trinitarian controversy, out of which theological formulations held central by practically all of the major branches of Christianity arose. And finally because it witnessed the rise of monasticism, a movement of immense spiritual vitality, which was to have considerable consequence for the institutional life of medieval Europe, as well as spiritual consequences for all the subsequent Christian history. Today we begin to look at the second of these three events.


I. Preliminary remarks:

A. Much of the controversy revolves around theological issues of much complexity. I will seek as much clarity as I can muster in dealing with these, yet they are confusing to those who have spent years studying them. Please feel free to ask questions.

B. This is not only a theological issue; the involvement of Constantine and his successors set the stage for the interaction of Christianity and the state for centuries after. We will also be looking at these, and I encourage questions about these issues as well.

II. Rules governing the theological debate: clearly there was no doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament. Yet certain unspoken rules and the grammar of the faith did operate as far back as the New Testament, and the interaction of these rules forms the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, leading up to the fourth century. They are:

A. Belief in one God; the heritage Jewish monotheism.

B. Jesus Christ as the definitive revelation of God (Christological maximization).

C. Historical existence of Jesus Christ and his true humanity. (note that this begins with the relationship between Christ and the Father; only in the fourth century does the divinity of the Holy Spirit become an issue).

III. Second and third-century backgrounds:

A. Justin and the Logos Christology started things with the idea of the word. This was inadequate because of its failure to define the relationship between the Word and God, thus jeopardizing monotheism (note the imprecision in the use of the terms “God” and “Father” during the pre-Nicene period).

B. Origen’s two-fold contribution:

1. Eternal generation of the Word: Word is not a creature, with a beginning in time or outside of it.

2. Word is distinct from and subordinate to God.

C. 3rd-century inadequate answers to the problem:

1. Adoptionism:

a. Position: Jesus Christ was an ordinary human being elevated to divine Sonship through a special outpouring of grace at his baptism. In other words God “adopted” Jesus of Nazareth and raised him to the level of son of God.

b. Objection: this works out well with the insistence on monotheism and on the real historical humanness of Jesus, but it relegates him to an inferior position.

2. Modalism:

a. Position: “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” are simply names for temporally successive activities of one and the same God.

b. objection: this also guards monotheism, yet denies the full revelation of God in Christ, because the modes reveal different things about God, and thus can offer no final knowledge of what God is like. Also involves problems of gods suffering.

IV. Arius and the beginning of the fourth century commentary and controversy.

A. Arius' career:

1. Presbyter of one of the more influential parishes in Alexandria; Bright, a keen interest in theology.

2. 318: in a meeting of the clergy of Alexandria, Arius tips his hand by claiming that “there was a time when the Son was not.”

3. This upsets Alexander, the bishop, and in 319 a local council deposes Arius.

4. Arius goes to see his old friend Eusebius at Nicomedia, and before long his teaching has circulated throughout the eastern part of the empire, attracting much support and stirring up much controversy.

5. The controversy comes to the attention of Constantine, who is upset that some stupid theological debate is disturbing the peace of the Empire, and calls the first ecumenical council consul, Nicaea, in 325.

6. Arius is condemned and finishes his life in exile.

B. Arius' theology:

1. Begins with two central presuppositions:

a. The transcendent oneness of God, which can admit no distinction or plurality at all.

(1) Because of God's transcendence, a gulf separates humanity and God, one which human beings cannot cross. Note that this is a gulf of finitude versus finitude, not a sinfulness versus holiness or immortality versus mortality.

(2) Thus, Christ is not coeternal with God, but “the first-born of creation,” who participates in God's nature (and is thus like God); he is a creature, not coeternal with God (and thus like humanity).

(3) Arius arrived at this, not so much through philosophy, as through his reading of Scripture.

(4) Note that the inadequacy of this argument is that it makes Christ neither fully divine nor fully human. Thus, although it gives Christ a preeminent role, it falls short of making him the perfect revelation of God. It also compromises his humanity and thus his solidarity with us.

V. Final note: although Arius himself was rejected at Nicaea support for modified versions of his thought was strong throughout the fourth century, and comprises the story of our next lecture.

VI. Implications for Contemporary ministry: Arius provides a good example of the way that an honest and sincere attempt to understand Scripture can become derailed. Every congregation has folks who honestly seek to discern the Bible’s meaning, yet sometimes wind up at conclusions that are, frankly, off base. This is a sensitive pastoral situation. It points to the need for a strong theological center of one’s own, in order to relate helpfully and creatively to these persons.

VII. Online resources for the study of our subject:

A. For an overview of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity in the early church, read this article.

B. For a brief summary of the Arian controversy, click here.