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§ 3. The Transition Period.
A. The Necessity for a more Definite Statement of the Doctrine.
The Biblical form of the doctrine of the Trinity, as given above, includes everything that is essential to the integrity of the doctrine, and all that is embraced in the faith of ordinary Christians. It is not all, however, that is included in the creeds of the Church. It is characteristic of the Scriptures, that the truths therein presented are exhibited in the form in which they address themselves to our religious consciousness. To this feature of the Word of God, its adaptation to general use is to be attributed. A truth often lies in the mind of the Church as an object of faith, long before it is wrought cut in its doctrinal form; that is, before it is analyzed, its contents clearly ascertained, and its elements stated in due relation to each other. When a doctrine so complex as that of the Trinity is presented as an object of faith, the mind is forced to reflect upon it, to endeavour to ascertain what it includes, and how its several parts are to be stated, so as to avoid confusion or contradiction. Besides this internal necessity for a definite statement of the doctrine, such statement was forced upon the Church from without. Even among those who honestly intended to receive what the Scriptures taught upon the subject, it was inevitable that there should arise diversity in the mode of statement, and confusion and contradiction in the use of terms. As the Church is one, not externally merely, but really and inwardly, this diversity and confusion are as much an evil, a pain, and an embarrassment, troubling its inward peace, as the like inconsistency and confusion would be in an individual mind. There was, therefore, an inward and outward necessity, in the Church itself, for a clear, comprehensive, and consistent statement of the various elements of this complex doctrine of Christian faith.
B. Conflict with Error.
Besides this necessity for such a statement of the doctrine as would satisfy the minds of those who received it, there was a further necessity of guarding the truth from the evil influence of false or erroneous exhibitions of it. The conviction was deeply settled in the minds of all Christians that Christ is a divine person. The glory which He displayed, the authority which He assumed, the power which He exhibited, the benefits which He conferred, necessitated the recognition of Him as the true God. No less strong, however, was the conviction that there is only one God. The difficulty was, to reconcile these two fundamental articles of the Christian faith. The mode of solving this difficulty, by rejecting one of these articles to save the other, was repudiated by common consent. There were those who denied the divinity of Christ, and endeavoured to satisfy the minds of believers by representing Him as the best of men; as filled with the Spirit of God; as the Son of God, because miraculously begotten; or as animated and controlled by the power of God: but, nevertheless, merely a man. This view of the person of Christ was so universally rejected in the early Church, as hardly to occasion controversy. The errors with which the advocates of the doctrine of the Trinity had to contend were of a higher order. It was of course unavoidable that both parties, the advocates and the opponents of the doctrine, availed themselves of the current philosophies of the age. Consciously or unconsciously, all men are more or less controlled in their modes of thinking on divine subjects by the metaphysical opinions which prevail around them, and in which they have been educated. We accordingly find that Gnosticism and Platonism coloured the views of both the advocates and the opponents of the doctrine of the Trinity during the Ante-Nicene period.
The Gnostics held that there was a series of emanations from the primal Being, of different orders or ranks. It was natural that those addicted to this system, and who professed to be Christians, should represent Christ as one of the highest of these emanations, or Eons. This view of his person admitted of his being regarded as consubstantial with God, as divine, as the creator of the world, as a distinct person, and of his having at least an apparent or docetic union with humanity. It therefore suited some of the conditions of the complicated problem to be solved. It, however, represented Christ as one of a series of emanations, and reduced Him to the category of dependent beings, exalted above others of the same class in rank, but not in nature. It moreover involved the denial of his true humanity, which was as essential to the faith of the Church, and as dear to his people as his divinity. All explanations of the Trinity, therefore, founded on the Gnostic philosophy were rejected as unsatisfactory and heretical.
The Platonic system as modified by Philo, and applied by him to the philosophical explanation of the theology of the Old Testament, had far more influence on the speculations of the early Fathers than Gnosticism. According to Plato, God formed, or had in the divine reason, the ideas, types, or models of all things, which ideas became the living, formative principles of all actual existences. The divine reason, with its contents, was the Logos. Philo, therefore, in explaining creation, represents the Logos as the sum of all these types or ideas, which make up the κόσμος νοητός, or ideal world. In this view the Logos was designated as ἐνδιάθετος (mente conceptus). In creation, or the self-manifestation of God in nature, this divine reason or Logos is born, sent forth, or or projected; becoming the λόγος προφορικός, giving life and form to all things. God, as thus manifested in the world, Philo called not only λόγος, but also υἰός, εἰκών, υἱὸς μονογενής, προτόγονος, σκία, παράδειγμα, δόξα, ἐπιστὴμη, θεοῦ, and δεύτερος Θεός. In the application of this philosophy to the doctrine of Christ, it was easy to make him the λόγος προφορικός, to assume and assert his personality, and to represent him as specially manifested or incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. This attempt was made by Justin Martyr, Tatian, and Theophilus. It succeeded so far as it exalted Christ above all creatures; it made him the creator and preserver of all things, the light and life of the world. It did not satisfy the consciousness of the Church, because it represented the divinity of Christ as essentially subordinate; it made his generation antemundane, but not eternal; and especially because the philosophy, from which this theory of the Logos was borrowed, was utterly opposed to the Christian system. The Logos of Plato and Philo was only a collective term for the ideal world, the ἰδέα τῶν ἰδεῶν; and therefore the real distinction between God and the Logos, was that between God as hidden and God as revealed. God in himself was ὁ θεός; God in nature was the Logos. This is, after all, the old heathen, pantheistic doctrine, which makes the universe the manifestation, or existence form of God.
Origen presented the Platonic doctrine of the generation and nature of the Logos in a higher form than that in which it had been exhibited in the speculations of others among the fathers. He not only insisted, in opposition to the Monarchians or Unitarians, upon the distinct personality of the Son, but also upon his eternal, as opposed to his antemundane, generation. Nevertheless, he referred this generation to the will of the Father. The Son was thus reduced to the category of creatures, for according to Origen, creation is from eternity. Another unsatisfactory feature of all these speculations on the Logos-theory was, that it made no provision for the Holy Spirit. The Logos was the Word, or Son of God, begotten before creation in order to create, or, according to Origen, begotten from eternity; but what was the Holy Spirit? He appears in the baptismal service and in the apostolic benediction as a distinct person, but the Logos-theory provided only for a Dyad, and not a Triad. Hence the greatest confusion appears in the utterances of this class of writers concerning the Holy Ghost. Sometimes, He is identified with the Logos; sometimes, He is represented as the substance common to the Father and the Son; sometimes, as the mere power or efficiency of God; sometimes, as a distinct person subordinate to the Logos, and a creature.
The Sabellian Theory.
Another method of solving this great problem and of satisfying the religious convictions of the Church, was that adopted by the Monarchians, Patripassians, or Unitarians, as they were indifferently called. They admitted a modal trinity. They acknowledged the true divinity of Christ, but denied any personal distinctions in the Godhead. The same person is at once Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; these terms expressing the different relations in which God reveals Himself in the world and in the Church. Praxeas, of Asia Minor, who taught this doctrine in Rome, A.D. 200; Noetus, of Smyrna, A.D. 230; Beryll, bishop of Bostra, in Arabia, A.D. 250; and especially Sabellius, a presbyter of Ptolemais, A.D. 250, after whom this doctrine was called Sabellianism, were the principal advocates of this theory. The only point as to which this doctrine satisfied the religious convictions of Christians, was the true divinity of our Lord. But as it denied the distinct personality of the Father and of the Spirit, to whom every believer felt himself to stand in a personal relation, to whom worship and prayers were addressed, it could not be received by the people of God. Its opposition to Scripture was apparent. In the Bible the Father is represented as constantly addressing the Son as “Thou,” as loving Him, as sending Him, as rewarding and exalting Him; and the Son as constantly addresses the Father and refers everything to his will, so that their distinct personality is one of the most clearly revealed doctrines of the Word of God. Sabellianism was, therefore, soon almost universally rejected.
Although Origen had insisted on the distinct personality of the Son, and upon his eternal generation, and although he freely called him God, nevertheless he would not admit his equality with God. The Father, alone, according to him was ἱ θεός, the Son was simply θεός. The Son was θεὸς ἐκ θεοῦ and not ἀυτο-θεός. And this subordination was not simply as to the mode of subsistence and operation, but as to nature; for Origen taught that the Son was of a different essence from the Father, ἕτερος κατ᾽ οὐσίαν, and owed his existence to the will of the Father. His disciples carried out his doctrine and avowedly made Christ a creature. This was done by Dionysius of Alexandria, a scholar of Origen, who spoke of the Son as ποίημα and κτίσμα, a mode of representation, however, which he subsequently retracted or explained away. It is plain, however, that the principles of Origen were inconsistent with the true divinity of Christ. It was not long, therefore, before Arius, another presbyter of Alexandria, openly maintained that the Son was not eternal, but was posterior to the Father; that He was created not from the substance of God, but ἐκ οὐκ ὀντῶν, and therefore was not ὁμοούσιος with the Father. He admitted that the Son existed before any other creature, and that it was by Him God created the world.
It is to be constantly remembered that these speculations were the business of the theologians. They neither expressed nor affected to express the mind of the Church. The great body of the people drew their faith, then, as now, immediately from the Scriptures and from the services of the sanctuary. They were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. They addressed themselves to the Father as the creator of heaven and earth, and as their reconciled God and Father, and to Jesus Christ as their Redeemer, and to the Holy Ghost as their sanctifier and comforter. They loved, worshipped, and trusted the one as they did the others. This was the religious belief of the Church, which remained undisturbed by the speculations and controversies of the theologians, in their attempts to vindicate and explain the common faith. This state of confusion was, however, a great evil, and in order to bring the Church to an agreement as to the manner in which this fundamental doctrine of Christianity should be stated, the Emperor Constantine summoned the First Ecumenical Council, to meet at Nice, in Nicomedia, A.D. 325.
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