What The Early Church Fathers Believed About The Trinity
I can cover this whole topic in less than a minute simply by saying that the early Christians believed in the Nicene Creed and what they believed about the Trinity is in the Nicene Creed.
I'm not even going to be able to adequately cover the subject of the Trinity in the time that we have today. So this is basically what I'm going to do first I'm going to limit today's sermon to the divinity of Christ and the relationship of the Father and the Son.
I said I was going to talk about the Trinity and we won't even be talking today about the third person of that Trinity, the Holy Ghost. So this is sort of my plan of attack. We're going to begin with the Nicene Creed. I'm going to read that to you because that Creed nicely summarizes what the early Christians believe.
I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Ghost was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.
I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.
The final paragraph deals with the Holy Ghost and some other basic beliefs which are outside the scope of our discussion today.
So our starting point of the Creed is the Father. It begins with the words, “I believe in one God, the Father almighty”
The Father Almighty God is one
Because the Father is one He is the source of the entire Trinity He is unbegotten. There is no source of the Father's existence other than Himself. As some of the early Christians put it He is divine. He is unbegotten and His origin is in Himself.
Now Jesus, according to the scriptures and the creed, is begotten from the Father. As the Creed says He is “God from God, light from light.” The Father is the source of the existence of Jesus.
Now let me explain to you what it says. “He is God from God”. To me that's not the best way to translate the creed into english the decree in the scriptures would say He is Theos from Theos.
Now the problem that I see with using the word God there, is in the New Testament, with only one or two exceptions is always talking about the Father. To my knowledge it never uses the word God to refer to the Trinity, and there's a few passages where Jesus is given the title God, but other than those few passages it's always referring to the Father. And so to most people who speak English, if they say the word God, to them that means a person, “I believe in God” or “No I don't believe in God”. They're talking about a person and in the New Testament that person is almost always the Father that is being talked about. So it's very easy to misunderstand this. And a lot of Christians do. Where it says he is God from God well it sounds like in English you're saying he's the same person as the Father from the Father. But you can't do that. You can't say he's the Father from the Father. In Greek, the word Theos, not only means the person God, it also means divinity or divine. It would be a lot better to say he is Deity from Deity He is true Divinity from true Divinity.
There's one monarchy between the Father and the Son. That's because as Jesus said, the Son does nothing of His own accord. He only does the will of the Father. Therefore it's correct to say that there is only one Father and therefore it's correct to say that there is only one God.
Now Jesus is not only the Son of the Father He's also the logos or some say logos of the Father. Now the Greek word Logos means word. That's usually how it's translated in our English but it also means the reason or mind.
All of this is really totally beyond our human comprehension and I do not even remotely understand that. I can only say what scripture is saying, and what the early Christians believed. Now, the Logos has always existed just as the Father has always existed, and also as the Holy Spirit. So when we say that the Son has His origin in the Father, we do not mean an origin in time. Well, how can that be?
Let me use the illustration that the early Christians used, and that is of the Sun. They would say the Trinity is like the Sun. The Father is like the orb itself. The ball of fire that we know as the Sun. Jesus is like a beam of light and heat coming from that Sun. He's the radiance that comes out from the Sun.
If you look at a beam of light you would say its origin is in the
Sun what hits us here on the earth, life originated in the Sun and yet that life has existed as long as that Sun has existed, or at least that particular combustion at that moment from from the Sun.
Do you see how you can have your origin something and yet be Co- eternal?
Another illustration that the early Christians used was a stream of water that comes out of a spring. The origin of a river or a creek or a stream is in the spring of water and yet as long as that spring has existed so has the stream.
Now you will find most of the early Christians saying that the Son of God has an Arche, meaning beginning or origin. Since Arche is also translated in English as beginning, we have to be careful. If we were to use the word beginning, it implies that Jesus had a beginning that he didn't exist. So when the Early Christian Fathers say the Son of God has an Arche, they usually mean He has an origin, in the sense of a beginning in eternity before creation.
We cannot think of God in terms of locality. God is omnipresent He's not in one place, sitting on a throne for example, and yet our mind really cannot comprehend omnipresence and so God has allowed us to think of Him as being in heaven sitting on a throne, even though this isn't reality. However before creation, we can't really think of Him in those terms that is the way we think of Him now, because God and the universe were synonymous because there was no universe, there was only God. There were no spacial dimensions or localities there was just God. And before the material world was created, or even the spirit world, the Father existed with his Logos and his Spirit and He had always existed from eternity in this manner.
However at some point before the beginning of time the Father willed to create other beings and to create the physical or material world so He sent forth His Logos as His Son from His bosom to be the agent of creation. So most of the early Christian writers understood this to be another sense of the Son having been begotten from the
There's two senses.
One is in the sense of origin. Like I said a bit like the origin of a beam of light. Since He is begotten He has His origin, His existence comes from the Father.
In another sense, and some would say it's really improper to refer to Him as the Son, S-O-N, until creation. Before that we should speak of Him as the Logos or Word. They would say that when He went forth from the Father to create the universe, then we can also speak of that as being the, beginning of the Son, S-O-N and in that sense, you can say that there was a beginning of the Son of God, S-O-N. Not that He didn't exist before His being begotten, but it was at that point when He went forth from the Father to create the world.
I understand that it can sound confusing but we're talking about things that are way way beyond our comprehension and I say these things because I think that they are worth understanding or knowing or at least to get a small grasp of the Trinity.
So we've seen the two senses that the early Christians talk about concerning the Son being beget or begotten.
Now, the key to having an Orthodox understanding of the Trinity, to having a scriptural understanding of the Trinity, is to grasp that there is a difference between three attributes or terms.
They are nature
Let me explain these terms again.
Nature, Personal attributes and Order refer to three very different things.
Let's start with the word nature or substance.
I think nature is a better term for the greek word ousía-- but the Nicene Creed as we know it in English, puts, in their substance. See substance, in our normal usage would refer to something physical or material. I don't know how you can talk about substance when you're dealing with the spirit world where there is nothing material or physical. Nature, I think, is a much better way to render that term but either way nature or substance refers to the essence or class to which a person or creature belongs.
For example, all humans are of one nature or one substance regardless of different physical characteristics. In other words genetically speaking no man or woman is any less human than anybody else and yet humans are not of the same nature or substance as the animals. So substance or nature is the class to which we belong. The Nicene Creed affirms that the Father and the Son are of the same nature or substance. The Son isn't something foreign to the Father rather He possesses the same nature as the Father.
All right now we're going to look at the second term personal attributes.
Personal attributes are something altogether different. Personal attributes refer to the individual characteristics and differences between members of the same class or nature.
To grab this distinction let's go back in time to the creation of man. According to Genesis at one time there were only two humans on the earth, Adam and Eve. Now these two humans shared the same nature or substance they were both equally human. Adam wasn't more human than Eve nor was Eve more human than Adam. They were equal in nature or substance. Does that mean then that Adam and Eve were equal or identical in personal attributes? No. It does mean that Adam was no doubt taller and stronger than Eve. Furthermore, Eve had come out of Adam. Her Arche, or origin, was in Adam, being formed from one of his ribs. On the other hand Eve had the ability to give birth to children, to breastfeed infants. Adam could do neither one of these things. In short, there were personal attributes that made Adam and Eve different from each other. Even, even though they were equal in nature.
So we see the difference between nature or substance and personal attributes. Because the Father and the Son are equal in nature does not mean that they have the same personal attributes.
There's another sense in which the Early Church talked. It was that the Father is greater than the Son and that's in the sense of order.
By order, I mean, chain of authority, equality of nature doesn't mean equality of order.
Going back to our illustration of Adam and Eve, we find that not only did Adam and Eve differ in personal attributes, but they also differed in order. Although Adam and Eve were equal in nature, Adam was created first and he was the head of Eve. Interestingly Saint Paul explains that there is the exact same order within the Trinity, as there was with Adam and Eve. He says, in I Corinthians 11. “I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ. The head of woman is man. And the head of Christ is God”. So you see the Father has authority over the Son but not the reverse. The son is sent by the Father. The Son doesn't send the Father. The Son does the will of the Father and the Son sits at the Father's right hand and this hierarchy of order within the Trinity cannot be reversed. And yet just because there is a hierarchy of order does not diminish the Sons true divinity anymore than a hierarchy of order in the human race diminishes any persons humanity.