The Trinitarian Beliefs of the Ante-Nicene Period Pt. 1

In this post, I begin a series where I will be quoting from one of the best treatments on the historical study and development of the Trinity of the last century. The book is titled The Triune God: A Historical Study of the Doctrine of the Trinity (Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene, Oregon 1999) and was written by Edmund J. Fortman.

I start this off by citing the summation of Fortman’s third chapter, where he sums up the teaching of the NT writers and the ante-Nicene fathers concerning the Trinity. All bold, capital, and/or underline emphasis will be mine.


It will be helpful to recapitulate the flow trinitarian thought thus far so as to see what its status was on the eve of the Nicene conflict that was to play such a tremendous part in the further development of trinitarian thought and dogma.

In the New Testament writings Jesus was called the ‘Son of God, ‘Lord,’ and ‘Word’ and was assigned the divine functions of creation, salvation, and judgment. He was explicitly said to be God and with God FROM ETERNITY, to be one with the Father and in the Father. The Holy Spirit was not explicitly called God, but at times He was put on a level with the Father and Son in terms of divinity and personality. To Him were ascribed the divine functions of inspiration, vivification, justification, sanctification. There was no formal doctrine of one God in three co-equal persons, but the elements of this doctrine were there.

The Apostolic Fathers maintained that there was only one God. They affirmed the divinity and distinct personality of Christ quite clearly and that of the Holy Spirit less clearly. They offered no trinitarian doctrine and saw no trinitarian problem.

The Apologists went further. They affirmed that God is one but also triadic. To Christ they ascribed divinity and personality explicitly, to the Holy Spirit only implicitly. To try to express Christ’s mysterious relationship with God, they used the concept of a pre-existing Logos somehow originating in and inseparable from the Godhead, which was generated or emitted for the purposes of creation and revelation. Thus they had what is called a ‘two-stage theory of the preexistent Logos,’ or a Logos endiathetos and a Logos prophorikos. But in describing the origin of the Logos-Son, they sometimes presented the personality of the Logos and the generation of the Son obscurely as to leave a strong impression that the Logos-Son was a non-eternal divine person, a diminished God drastically subordinate to the Father. But they did not go as far as the later Arians would and make the Son only a creature and an adopted son of God.

The Alexandrines made further contributions to the development of trinitarian thought. Clement affirmed one God and adored the trinity of the Father, Word, and the Holy Spirit. Although he has some subordinationist passages, his general doctrine is that the Son is eternally generated by the Father and is one and the same God with the Father. But how the three are one and the same God he does not explain.

Origen maintained the eternal generation of the Son and thus abandoned ‘the twofold stage theory of the pre-existent Logos’ and substituted ‘for it a single stage theory.’49 

While other writers had spoken of the three, they had not answered the question, ‘three what’? Origen answered it by saying they were ‘three hypostases’ (Jo. 2.6), and thus seems to have been the first to apply the Trinity this word that Greek theology ultimately accepted as the technical description of what the Latins called the personae of God.50 He made it clear that these three hypostases were not only ‘economically’ distinct, but essentially and eternally.

In some of his commentaries (Num. 12.1; Lev. 13.4) he apparently applies ‘the conception of a single ousia to the divine triad’ and contends that there ‘is a single substance and nature of the triad,’51 and in one passage he seems to say the Son is homoousios with the Father. But he probably meant He was only generically, not identically, consubstantial.

To some extent Origen was a subordinationist, for his attempt to synthesize strict monotheism with a Platonic hierarchical order in the Trinity could have–and did have–only a subordinationist result. He openly declared that the Son was inferior to the Father and the Holy Spirit to the Son. But he was not an Arian subordinationist for he did not make the Son a creature and an adopted son of God.

Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria made a notable, if unintended, contribution to the developing crisis by bringing into prominence the three basic trinitarian deviations that are known to history as Sabellianism, Subordinationism, and Tritheism, and the urgent need of precise trinitarian concepts, terms, and distinctions. His encounter with the Pope of Rome also turned a strong light on the term homoousios that was soon to occupy the center of the stage at Nicea. (Chapter Three. The Pre-Nicene Phase, pp. 59-61)

Lord willing, I am going to quote the rest of Fortman’s excellent discussion of the Trinitarian beliefs of the ante-Nicene Fathers in subsequent posts.

Here’s the link to the second installment where I cite Fortman’s discussion of Origen’s Trinitarian beliefs (


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