A Brief History of the Doctrine of the Trinity in the Early Church
Translated by John Bowden.
New York: T&T Clark, 2007. Pp. xi + 148. Paper. $26.95.
In the later second and third centuries the question of how the saviour as ‘Lord and God’ (cf. John 20.28 ) can be integrated into monotheism was not only a problem within the church but also played a role in the Christian mission… [p. 21]
Dünzl begins this chapter by focusing attention on Justin Martyr and his Logos christology drawing in part from his Dialogue with the Jew Trypho. Commenting on Justin’s use of the language of an ‘additional God’ (in reference to Jesus), Dünzl says:
In order to make the notion plausible nevertheless, Justin resorts to the Logos christology, which has its roots not only in the prologue to the Gospel of John but also in Greek philosophy. [p. 22]
Here’s the point in the book where overly zealous Christian apologists would love to object and point out that the doctrine of the Trinity is rooted in Scripture and not Greek philosophy, but what follows is a very succinct yet thorough treatment of the factors that influenced Justin. Justin didn’t interpret the Bible apart from his philosophical leanings.
We’re provided with very useful information tracing the conception of the Logos from the word’s etymology (‘from the verb lego’ [p. 22]) and (a nuanced) definition (‘it denotes the content, meaning, and rationality of a statement’ [p. 22]) to its use by the pre-Socratic philospher [c. 500 BC] Heraclitus who understood ‘the ultimate principle of the world’ as being ‘in the Logos… It is the law of the world, the impersonal world reason which guides and directs everything…’ [p. 22]. This introduction of Logos into philosophy was then adopted by the Stoa around 300 BC who viewed it as ‘the rational principle according to which the world is built up and by which it is directed.’ [p. 23]
Brief mention is made of Philo of Alexandria saying that he ‘sought to produce a balance between biblical theology and Greek philosophy’ [p. 24] but I was left wanting a little more concerning this character, nothing is developed past this statement. This sets the stage for more interaction with Justin’s Logos christology. Dünzl quotes from Dialogue 61.1f in which Justin speaks of God begetting himself a certain rational power (Greek dynamis logike) and compares this to humans bringing forth a word, a word that is not separated from us nor does it diminish anything from us [p. 24].
We’re then introduced to Monarchianism (i.e. Modalistic Monarchianism) ala Noetus, Praxeas, and Sabellius and those who opposed it, i.e. Hippolytus, Novatian, Tertullian. In a section where it would have been easy to mis-characterize those whom we now consider heretical/unorthodox, Dünzl treats them fairly.
Of Noetus he says:
Noetus’ concern emerges clearly from these lines: he is concerned about the oneness of God, about the identity of creator and saviour, and about the compatibility of transcendence and immanence in the Christian image of God. [p. 26]
So often these ancient heretics are painted in such as way so as to seem like diabolical villains who had formulated some sinister plot to overthrow orthodoxy in an attempt at world domination when the fact of the matter is that they were men who sought to understand God and Christ and what they meant for their lives and salvation.
But as sincere as they may have been they were still ultimately wrong. For Noetus ‘as long as the Father was not begotten or born, he was rightly called the Father; but when it pleased him to submit himself to birth, through birth he became his own Son…’ [p. 27]
Dünzl notes a tendency of the early debates that seemingly transcends time itself, i.e. that ‘both sides exaggerated the teaching of their opponents polemically to an intolerable degree.’ [p. 29] In a debatable point Dünzl says:
The reaction of the Logos thelogians to Monarchian teaching can be demonstrated through the Cathaginian Christian Tertullian, who in his treatise Against Praxeas (c.210) not only sought to refute it with exegetical perspicacity and polemical sarcasm but also presented the first sketch of a theology of the Trinity which is really worthy of the name. [p. 30]
Gordon D. Fee’s “Paul and the Trinity: The Experience of Christ and the Spirit for Paul’s Understanding of God” in The Trinity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity (OUP, 1999), 49-72, offers a sketch of Paul’s soteriology/theology that can indeed be rightly termed Trinitarian. One wonders where Tertullian would have been without Paul.
In what was perhaps the highlight of the chapter for me, Dünzl brings up a very important point that many in the modern era have lost sight of in their language of the Trinity (e.g., see Morey’s The Trinity: Evidence & Issues or White’s The Forgotten Trinity) when he says:
…Tertullian […] has to keep his theology free from suspicion that it is abandoning monotheism. Therefore in Praxeas 9 he is concerned to a precise differentiation in trinitarian theological diction: for him, while Father, Son and Spirit are different from one another (alius et alius et alius), this differentiation must not be interpreted as radical difference (diversitas) in the sense of division (divisio) or separation (seperatio); on the other hand it can be described as distribution (distributio), distinction (distinctio) and articulated ordering (dispositio), so as to make it possible at the same time to maintain the unity of the divine persons. [p. 33]
The treatment on Origen is to be commended for its terseness. Dünzl accomlishes in four pages what many works require chapters for. Origen’s emphasis on the distinction of the three persons over and above their unity is mentioned with the explanation that:
Origen did not succeed in grasping the unity of the three conceptually. In his time it was not yet possible for Greek theologians to speak of the one divine nature (physis) or of the one divine substance (ousia). For the terms substance and hypostasis, ousia and hypostasis, were still interchangeable. [p. 35]
Origen’s Platonic influences show in his belief of everything spiritual as eternal, to include Father, Son, Spirit, angels/demons, and human souls. What distinguishes the Son from all else that is spiritual for Origen is that ‘the eternal Logos is begotten by the eternal Father as his image, but the spiritual beings have been created from eternity through the Logos and in him.’ [p. 37] This is certainly a helpful description but I would have enjoyed if more attention was given to Origen’s doctrine of eternal generation.