By Timothy George
October 5, 2015
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. Read the rest at First Things.