March 30, 2023

How Did the Doctrine of the Trinity Develop in the Early Church?

Nathan W. Bingham & Stephen Nichols
How Did the Doctrine of the Trinity Develop in the Early Church?

The doctrine of the Trinity is central to the Christian faith. Today, Stephen Nichols tells us how early Christian leaders labored tirelessly for the church to understand this biblical truth.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: Today on the Ask Ligonier podcast I’m joined by Ligonier’s Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Stephen Nichols. Dr. Nichols, how did the early church refine its understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity?

DR. STEPHEN NICHOLS: Well, this is a very important question, Nathan, because we’re obviously talking about one of the central doctrines. This is a doctrine of who God is.

When we look at the doctrine of the Trinity and how it develops, what we see is the issue is really, first of all, Christology. It’s the controversial issue. In fact, it’s controversial before we even get out of the pages of the New Testament.

There are those false teachers in the New Testament church who are teaching that Jesus was not truly human; He only appeared to be human. And on one hand, this makes sense. This reflects the Platonism of the day. And one of the fundamental tenets of Plato and Plato’s thought is that matter is bad. Well, how can the divine nature be so united with matter? So, Jesus was not truly human. In fact, some would say He only appeared to be human. And the Greek word “to appear” is the word dokeō, and from that we get the heresy of docetism. So, this is in the pages of the New Testament that the Apostles are dealing with this. John is dealing with this in his epistles.

Then the challenge, once we move into the 100s and 200s, now the challenge comes in on the deity of Christ. And so the church meets together—this is the great Council of Nicaea. And out of that comes what we call “two-nature” Christology or the Nicene Christology, that Jesus is truly God of truly God, truly man of truly man. Well, this introduces a whole new set of challenges for the church because how do these two natures come together?

And so you have teachers, who end up becoming false teachers, who boldly go where Scripture does not go and speculate and come up with innovative ideas of how the two natures come together. And in the process, they actually end up impinging upon and challenging the true humanity, the true deity. Well, it’s time for another council. So, the bishops gather this time at Chalcedon in 451. And if you read Chalcedon, and you really should—I’ve always been impressed by what Chalcedon doesn’t say—it doesn’t try to explain how the two natures come together. It just says that they do. And it says that they come together in a way that is intact. And I think that’s a very helpful model for what we’re talking about here, the development of doctrine.

We have to stay within the bounds of Scripture when we are developing doctrine. And doctrines get developed over time in the life of the church. All doctrine is—all theology is—the statement, the comprehensive statement of Scripture’s teaching. And we need those comprehensive statements because false teachers will camp out on this particular text; they’ll ignore other texts. And, of course, that leads not to a true teaching, but to a distortion. And so, doctrine and theology pays attention to the whole counsel of God and brings the whole counsel of God to bear. And so, it is going to develop. It’s going to develop as the challenges come along. And we respond to those challenges by going back to Scripture and then restating that Scripture in our creeds, our confessions, and in our statements of faith.

Well, back to Trinity. So, if the issue is Christology, obviously that’s going to impact our Trinity. And so, what we need then is a statement, is an understanding of the doctrine of Trinity that reflects all of the Bible’s teaching on who God is. This comes through the Christology creeds. It comes through the Christology debates. It also comes through a very helpful term that Tertullian gives us in 200, the term Trinity.

And there are some who criticize this and say: “Go through every single page of the Bible. The word Trinity is not there. Therefore, it is not a biblical doctrine.” Well, that’s very illogical. While the word is not there, the concept is certainly there. The deity of Christ is presented. The deity of the Holy Spirit is presented. The deity of God the Father is taught in Scripture. And then on top of that, what do we have? That God is one. And so, we have this term Trinity. Some want to modify it a little bit and say triunity to help us understand that God is indeed one essence in three persons. And so, that’s the doctrine.

If you go back to the Nicene Creed, you go back to the Chalcedonian Creed, you’ll see there that’s not only a statement of the deity of Christ, it’s also a full statement of the deity of the Holy Spirit, who is to be worshiped along with the Father and the Son.

And so, God alone is worthy of our worship, and we worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. That’s our Trinitarian doctrine, and I’m thankful for some of these church fathers who helped us understand the whole counsel of God on this all-important point.