Patristic Testimony and the Trinity

If the Trinity is of such vital important to the faith and to the Christian life, what did the testimony of the patristic fathers have to say about it?  This question is asked because it is a question asked by some skeptics of the Trinity dogma.  While the Faith is explained in a plain and direct manner in the first centuries, the substance of the mystery is rightly shown in the following centuries.  The patristic testimony regarding the Trinity, has a definite influence on the doctrinal and liturgical life of the church now as it did then.

The work of the early church fathers can be divided in what is called Anti-Nicene and Post-Nicene.  The reason for these distinctions is because the Council of Nicea was a sort of dividing line because after Nicea the dogma of the Trinity was formally defined (Preuss 142).  At any rate, the first four centuries were crucial as dogma was not only defined, but even before then we see development and manifestation of the dogma in the liturgy (Garrigou-Lagrange Introduction).

At mass there are two creeds that can be said after the homily.  One is the Nicean creed, and the other is the Apostle creed.  The Apostles creed is only slightly older than its Nicean counterpart, but in it we profess the Trinity.  Though it is made up of a few lines it declared the divinity of all three persons of the Godhead, and it is a creed that we still profess today (Preuss 144).  Regarding this Garrigou-Lagrange states, “according to the arrangement of the Apostles’ Creed is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost and those things attributed to them in the order of salvation” (Garrigou-Lagrange Ch. 1).

The creed itself is an extension of the sacrament of Baptism.  In Baptism, one is immersed, or water is poured on the head, three times in the name of each person of the Trinity (Lecture Notes).  The Trinitarian formula of baptism has biblical roots in such places as Matthew 28, but it was carried on into the liturgy and the writings of the Fathers.  Tertullian, a second century Christian writer, stated that the Trinity itself is the substance of the New Testament (Garrigou-Lagrange Ch.1).

There is also evidence of Patristic testimony in the doxologies in the early church and those in use today.  As was the case with Baptism, origins of these doxologies have their roots in the Pauline epistles where St. Paul writes the earliest doxologies.  The prayer that we sometimes call the “Glory Be” (Gloria Patra) today, has very ancient Christian roots (Lecture Notes).  Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.  World without end, amen.  This prayer reflected the publicly professed faith of the early Christians, and early Christian writers (Preuss 146).  It is one of the basic prayers taught to children at an early age to teach them the dogma of the Trinity.  It is one that links us today with great saints such as St. Justin Martyr, wo also was familiar with this doxology (Preuss 146).

The doctrine of the Trinity is echoed in the confessions of the early martyrs.  Patristic testimony celebrated these martyrs as heroes of the faith, and in some cases the patristics were among these martyrs.  These martyrs are celebrated in the liturgy on various feast days throughout the liturgical calendar.  St. Polycarp was martyred in 166 A.D., and before his martyrdom he gave glory all here persons of the Trinity (Preuss 145).  There were many others with St. Epipodeus and St, Euplus of Cantonia just to name a couple more.  These holy martyrs died for the Trinity because it was true.  Just because the dogma had not been formally defined does not mean that it had not always been taught.

 

Works Cited

Garrigou-Lagrange, Reginald.  The Trinity and God the Creator.  https://www.ewtn.com/library/THEOLOGY/TRINITY.HTM#05, accessed November 13, 2018.

Preuss, Arthur. The Divine Trinity.  https://archive.org/details/divinetrinityad00pohlgoog, accessed November 12, 2018.

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Patristic Theories of Redemption

The fathers of the early church fought very hard to preserve orthodox teaching regarding the person of Christ.  There were numerous assaults on his divinity and nature, and the Council of Chalcedon seemed to put the issue to rest for good.  The teaching that Jesus Christ, was eternal, always existed, is fully divine, and fully human was now put to rest.  Though this was crucial part in the Christological story, it was not complete.  The Church fathers wrestled with various theories regarding Christ.  These theories did not deal with who Jesus was, but dealt with what he did to redeem us.  In this paper, three patristic will be discussed along with what is common among them.

One of the redemptive theories discussed in the Patristic period was the Pedagogical or Christ-the-teacher theory of salvation.  This theory teaches that Christ with a new knowledge, or law and demonstrated this with the example of his life.  The idea that Christ is our example is a theme throughout much of the New Testament.  There are many passages, but 1 Peter 2:21 specifically mentions that Christ is an example for us to follow.  That passage of scripture states, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (NRSV).  The concept of a new knowledge from God is also present outside of scripture in some of the earliest Christian writings.  Regarding this Joseph Mitros writes, Such expressions such as ‘Immortal knowledge’ ‘new knowledge’…recur quite often in the Didache, the First of Clement and the Shepherd of hermas” (Mitros 418).

Another theory set forth in the patristic era was known as the recapitulation theory.  This theory was made popular by St. Irenaeus, and taught that Christ rescued humanity by “recapitulating in himself the whole human race” (Mitros 416).  St Irenaeus found support for this theory in the writings of St. Paul.  One such passage from Paul is Romans 5:18-19 which states, “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.  For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (NRSV).  Since Adam was the cause of the fall, Christ came to live the life that Adam should have.  As a result, we are now redeemed and restored to the life we once had prior to Adam (Mitros 427).

A third theory that arose in the Patristic age is the transactional theory.  It is known better as the Christus Victor theory.  This theory claims that a ransom had be paid to Satan for the redemption of humanity.  The ransom was supposed to be part of a kind of contractual obligation between God and Satan.  There are no passages in scripture that speak of such a contract, but there was an understanding in the early church about the term slavery.  Humanity were slaves to Satan, and Christ died to redeem them.  In this regard Joseph Mitros states, “Now, the term of redemption, understood within the context of slavery, meant a liberation of a slave upon the payment of a ransom to the owner” (Mitros 422).  Gregory of Nyssa elaborated this view by introducing the concept of a fishing hook.  Just as in fishing, Satan clamped down on this hook (i.e. Christ), and found a surprise.  This surprise was the claims of all the souls taken from the devil.

There are many other theories that were developed and discussed during the Patristic era.  As has been seen, there is quite a range in belief and teaching.  However, there is one constant that stands out among them.  The redemption that is found in Christ and seeks to transform individual persons (Lecture Notes).  That is what the fathers sought to do in these various theories.

Works Cited

Mitros, Joseph. “Patristic Views of Christ’s Salvific Work,” Thought 42 (1967), 415-447.

Book Review: Learning Theology with the Church Fathers

There are many books written about what the church fathers said and did. The Church Fathers, particularly the Patristics, had a connection to the very beginnings of Christianity. This connection gives them a different focus in their writing then that of someone writing in the 10th century. Christopher Hall does a great job in breaking down the theology of the church fathers in terms that a novice can follow.

Christopher Hall is provost of Eastern University and dean of its Templeton Honors College. He is the author of numerous books including Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers, and Praying with the Church Fathers. He is also the editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary. Learning Theology with the Church Fathers will be the subject of this review. In this work Dr. Hall looks at the theological issues that the early church faced, their implications, and why they are relevant today.

In the preface Dr. Hall explains that the fathers “continually remind us that theology is at best broken speech about the transcendent, mysterious God who draws near to us in the incarnation of the Son and presence of the Spirit[1].” In the opening chapter Dr. Hall gives a describes to us what a church father is, and theological loci that surrounded the Church Fathers’ thinking; namely, the question of authority, the Trinity,

the incarnation, Christ’s work, question of humanity, question of the church, and the question of the future[2].” Each subsequent chapter has a theme and issue that is dealt with, along with great quotes from church fathers. The chapters are as follows: 2) Christ the Son, Begotten not Made, 3) The Mystery and Wonder of the Trinity, 4) Christ Diving and Human, 5) On the Holy Spirit, 6) Sin, Grace, and the Human Condition, 7) God’s Transcendent Providence, 8) God’s Wise and Loving Providence, 9) The Sacred Scriptures, 10) One Holy, Apostolic Church, and 11) The Resurrection of the Body and Life Everlasting[3].

In chapter two Dr. Hall goes into great deal about the Arian controversy. He outlines the idea that Arius though that Jesus was a created being, and the counter argument of Athanasius who argued that Jesus was coexistent and not created. In Chapter three the Trinity is discussed. Dr. Hall describes Gregory of Nazianzus and his perspective of describing the Trinity. Dr. Hall describes, “By this time, Gregory, you and I are tempted to scream. Our linguistic and spatial categories are proving incapable of adequately describing God, which turns out to be exactly Gregory’s point[4].” Dr. Hall shows how difficult the formulation of Trinitarian doctrine to be, but to prove the point he points to a sermon Augustine gave that points to the manifestation of the Trinity.

The reviewer could write much more on the content of the book, but will focus on these two areas. In regards to the Arian controversy, Dr. Hall does a masterful job of explaining what was going on at the time. The issue was if the Son was a created being or not. In other words was he begotten or made. In the mind of Arius if the Son was begotten, then there must have been a time when he was no begotten. Arius says Jesus is divine in some way, but cannot have the same nature as the Father. In regards to this Hall writes, “Frankly, Arius seems to want his cake and to eat it, too. On the one hand he wants to affirm that the Son is in some way divine. On the other hand, if Arius is to preserve God’s simplicity and indivisibility, he must affirm that the Son has a beginning[5].” To this the church fathers use scripture and philosophical terms at the council of Nicea to come up with the Nicean Creed. Athanasius was center stage theologically in this council to prove the errors of Arius.

As previously stated the Trinity is discussed in chapter three. Hall points out the intricacies of the Trinity have been debated from the fourth century, to the enlightenment, and in some cases even today. Hall points out that in some Christian circles a discussion of the Trinity is too esoteric, and some try not to discuss it[6]. The church fathers had issues in describing the Trinity as well, and at times it seemed to be an impossible, but very important task. Though it was difficult the Fathers developed Trinitarian doctrine because it was based on scripture. The defense of the Trinity paved the way for non-biblical terms to be used. Hall further explains, “A Trinitarian model, one founded on biblical exegesis but free to employ new terms not found in the Bible-among them homoousios-to explain and elucidate the implications of the biblical data concerning the Father, Son and Holy Spirit[7].”

As masterful as the work is in explaining the theology of the fathers the reviewer has a couple critiques of the work. The first is in relation to the Arian controversy and the divinity of Christ. The divinity of Christ and his relation to the Father had been brought up a century earlier by the Modalists. The Modalist view was that the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were successive modes of activity and revelation of the one God[8].” Dr. Hall, though thorough, did not touch on this controversy and it would have been a good background story for Arius. What is the eternal future of those who follow Arius? Though it is implied it is not implicitly stated.

In conclusion the teaching of the Church Fathers is important to the church today. These are not men, who were Christians that died centuries ago. They paved the way and dealt with many issues that we could not fathom today. It is upsetting to the reviewer that many Christians today are not concerned with their theology, and some have never even heard of them. They helped develop the doctrines that we proclaim today. Should we not make an effort to better understand them? Learning Theology with the Church Fathers is a great resource of pastors, teachers, and the average Christian who wants a better understanding of church history and theology. This is an excellent book and Dr. Hall is commended for his work. It is a very important book and should be on the bookshelf of every serious Bible student, pastor, and teacher.

Bibliography

Ferguson, Everett. Church History: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013.

Hall, Christopher A… Learning Theology with the Church Fathers. Downers Grove, IL: Ivp Academic, 2002.

[1] Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: Ivp Academic, 2002), 10.

[2] Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: Ivp Academic, 2002), 18.

[3] Ibid, Table of Contents.

[4] Ibid, 59.

[5] Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: Ivp Academic, 2002), 36.

[6] Ibid, 54.

[7] Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: Ivp Academic, 2002), 55.

[8] Everett Ferguson, Church History: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 143.

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