One of the most common charges leveled against Christians in the early church was that they were atheists. They did not worship the gods of Rome and Greece, nor did they follow the mystery religions of the East. Indeed, they claimed to worship the one true God of Israel, the Creator of all that is, the one whom Jesus called “Father,” by whose power he had been raised from the dead.
The exact relation of Jesus Christ, the divine Logos, to the eternal Father was studied and explained by Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, and other apologists of the second century. The triune nature of God was expressed in the “rule of faith,” one form of which we know today as the Apostles’ Creed. This statement was frequently recited at baptism as an essential summary of the biblical faith. In other words, in declaring their faith in God as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the early Christians were not doing “constructive” theology, but were simply declaring their faith in the God of Israel, who had raised Jesus from the dead, the God who by his Spirit was present in their midst.
A major challenge to this understanding of God arose within the church when Marcion, a brilliant thinker, denied that the Father of Jesus was identical with the God of the Old Testament. Jesus was the emissary of an “alien” God, Marcion said, a God who had nothing to do with the messy business of creation and procreation—the world of mud, mosquitoes, diapers, and dung. Like the Gnostics, Marcion disparaged all things material and corporeal. He also encouraged the church to excise from its canon the entire Old Testament and much of the New, keeping only an expurgated version of Luke and Paul. Marcion advocated a form of radical dualism, splitting apart creation and redemption. One of the most important decisions made in the entire history of theology was the rejection of Marcion’s heresy. By saying no to Marcion, the church affirmed the basic continuity of the Old and New Testaments and the coinherence of creation and redemption. Christians would continue to struggle with the meaning of suffering and evil in the good world that God had made. But, after Marcion, they were bound to the lordship and ultimate victory of God over all that is.
One of those who opposed Marcion’s views was Tertullian, the first major theologian to write in Latin, and it was he who coined the term trinitas. Writing against a certain Praxeas, Tertullian argued that there was both a threeness and a oneness within the divine being of God. In his exegesis of certain biblical texts, notably Psalm 110:1 and Isaiah 53:1, Tertullian observed: “So in these texts the distinctness of the three is plainly set out, for there is the Spirit who makes the statement, the Father to whom he addresses it, and the Son who is the subject of it.” At the same time, Tertullian said, we do not worship three gods, for each of the divine persons is “of one substance” (una substantia). Tertullian provided a useful vocabulary for clearly distinguishing the three and the one without relapsing into tritheism, and this became an important factor in the Nicene doctrine of God.
In seeking to understand the relationship of Jesus Christ to the Father who had sent him, the early church faced two Christological dangers. These dangers did, in fact, precipitate a crisis in the doctrine of the Trinity. The first was modalism. This is a view that says the Trinity is three different modes or masks that God wears at different times in salvation history. In the Old Testament he appeared as the Father, in the New Testament as the Son, and now, in the age of the church, we experience God as the Holy Spirit. Not only does this view contradict the witness of Scripture (for example, Jesus prayed to the Father while on earth); it also eliminates the possibility of relationship within the Godhead. How could the Father “send” the Son if there is no distinction between them?
If modalism eliminates self-distinction within God, then subordinationism (the opposite danger) undercuts the unity of God. Here the Son and the Spirit are agents of the Father, but they do not share in his essential oneness. The most extreme form of subordinationism was taught by Arius, who claimed that the Son/Logos was a creature made by God—an exalted creature, to be sure, and perhaps the greatest creature of all, but a creature nonetheless. The teaching of Arius brought about the Council of Nicea in AD 325.
Athanasius served as the bishop of Alexandria in Egypt. Arius was a presbyter (priest or elder) in his church. The conflict between the two became so intense that all the bishops in the Christian world were summoned to a gathering at Nicea in 325 to resolve this dispute. There they formulated a creed, which, with some subsequent changes confirmed at the Council of Constantinople in 381, Christian churches all over the world still recite. On the crucial point of contention between Arius and Athanasius, the Nicene Creed said this:
We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only begotten Son of God,
begotten of his Father before all worlds,
God of God, Light of Light,
very God of very God,
begotten, not made,
being of one substance with the Father.
This definition flew in the face of Arius’s understanding of God. To say that the Son was homoousios—of the same substance as the Father—was to introduce plurality and division into the Godhead. It was to be guilty of what was later described in Islam as shirk, that is, “associating” with God something that is not God. But why is this? Because God’s innermost being or essence, according to Arius, cannot be shared, or even communicated, with anyone else. “We know,” Arius said, “there is one God, alone unbegotten, alone eternal, alone without beginning, alone true, alone immortal.”
To this way of thinking, God is the Alone with the Alone. He is utterly transcendent, self-sufficient, and all-powerful in every way. He guards his divinity jealously in the same way that Silas Marner guarded his gold in George Eliot’s famous novel. Silas Marner was a miser who kept a chest full of gold coins under his bed. Every night before he went to sleep, he would take out his gold coins, count them, stroke them, and admire them. Then he would put them back under his bed and go to sleep. He never spent any of his coins because they were his. They were not to be shared with anyone else. Arius believed in a “Silas Marner” kind of God—a God wealthy beyond measure, a God so self-contained in his absoluteness that the thought of having to share his innermost reality, his “essence,” with anyone else, even with a “son,” was anathema to him.
One of the prime arguments against Arius’s view was that it left the church with a Christ who was not worthy to be worshiped. If Jesus were less than fully divine, it would be idolatrous to worship him. The Lord has clearly said, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Athanasius made the further point that if Jesus was not homoousios with the Father, then he could not be the Savior of the world.
Arius had ridiculed the idea that God could “beget” a son. Athanasius (and the theologians in the Nicene tradition who followed him) sought to explain the “begottenness” of the Son in a way that avoided the sterility of Arius’s Silas Marner-like God as well as the crass literalism derived from Greek mythology. The Nicene formula had described the Son as the same in substance with the Father, and yet in some important way also distinct from the Father: He was God of (from) God, Light of (from) Light, very God of (from) very God. The challenge was how to explain this from-ness without violating the same-ness, which they did by declaring that the Son was begotten—but not in the way that human fathers beget or generate their earthly children. No, the Son of the heavenly Father was begotten from all eternity. He did not “come to be” at a point in time. In fact, there never was a time when he was not. But from eternity the Father and the Son have always existed in “a relationship of total and mutual self-giving.”
Clearly this kind of eternal begetting would not be possible if the Father was selfish with his glory, his power, and his majesty. On the contrary, however, he is unspeakably generous. He gives all of these to the Son in an eternal interchange of holy love. Neither is the Son “self-seeking” (1 Cor. 13:5), but returns all that he has received to the glory of the Father, with the Holy Spirit as the bond of unity between the two. The mystery of God’s unity is thus a unity of love. When we peer into the heart of God, we find not solitary absoluteness—the Alone with the Alone—but the mystery of eternal love and relationship, a begetting without a beginning and an indwelling without an ending.
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and the general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.