Trinitarianism did not fall from the sky, nor did Jesus write the Nicene Creed on tablets and hand it to the apostles after his resurrection. Instead, the terminology changed over time for various contextual and missional reasons, particularly in response to the issues listed below. The biblical writers did not use the same terms as the Nicene Creed to describe the nature and relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but they all affirmed Trinity at some level.
The doctrine of the Trinity is the fundamental doctrine of orthodox Christianity. I admit, that phrase may sound controversial to some. Many people understandably wonder about the origins of the doctrine of the Trinity—after all, the word “Trinity” is not found in Scripture. Indeed, some churches argue that the Trinity is just a philosophical doctrine that developed long after the Bible was written; therefore, it is at worst an unbiblical teaching and at best a secondary issue Christians can reasonably disagree on.
To defend the bold claim in the first sentence of this article, it is important to understand two basic claims. First, the doctrine of the Trinity is a non-negotiable doctrine based on the biblical data. The early church understood this and continued to appeal to Scripture as their defense for the doctrine. Second and because of that, the Trinity is not a doctrine invented by the early church, but rather a doctrine that is necessarily derived from reading Scripture.
As we will see, the way to understand Trinitarian theology biblically and historically is to understand the stages of Trinitarian language between the biblical writings and the formation of the orthodox Christian creeds. Indeed, Trinitarianism did not fall from the sky, nor did Jesus write the Nicene Creed on tablets and hand it to the apostles after his resurrection. Instead, the terminology changed over time for various contextual and missional reasons, particularly in response to the issues listed below. The biblical writers did not use the same terms as the Nicene Creed to describe the nature and relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but they all affirmed Trinity at some level. Perhaps an illustration will help drive home this point.
When describing the moon, my young daughter, an astrophysicist, and myself would describe the moon in different ways. My daughter may note that the moon is a round object on the other side of the clouds; I may describe the moon as a ball of rock that is beyond our atmosphere but orbits the earth via gravitational pull; an astrophysicist may explain that the moon is made up of mafic and anorthosite rocks, as well as speaking of the synchronous rotation of the Earth and moon. While the astrophysicist may use more terminologically-advanced language than my daughter or myself, she is ultimately describing the same object that all three of us can fundamentally observe and identify. One would not accuse my daughter of not knowing what the moon is, regardless of the terms she employs. In the same way, the biblical and pre-Nicene writers understood that God is triune, but with varying levels of conceptual clarity or terminological sophistication.
Major Issues in Developing Trinitarian Language
Several issues arose in the early church with respect to the biblical teaching about Jesus and the Holy Spirit. As these issues arose, the early church never left biblical truth, but at times needed to either use or develop different terminology to respond to contextual or missional concerns.
- Interpretation of biblical texts. The primary reason for the development of Trinitarian language can be found in the earliest debates about the Bible’s witness to the nature and activities of Christ and the Holy Spirit. The famous battle between the camps of Athanasius and Arius over the nature of the Son, for example, was not merely over terminology, but fundamentally over the interpretation and theological summations of biblical texts. Athanasius was not being pedantic about theological jargon; rather, he noted, for instance, that we cannot rightly worship Christ as Scripture demands unless Christ is truly God. Put another way, the development of the doctrine of the Trinity was not just a philosophical or academic argument, but an argument rooted in understanding the Bible and teaching it rightly.