Discourse on the Trinity


The background to fourth-century Trinitarian debates

The church of the fourth century inherited a tradition of Trinitarian discourse that was pervasively embedded in its worship and proclamation, even if it was lacking in conceptual definition. No less than their Jewish counterparts, the early Christians were strict monotheists who gave unqualified adherence to the Shema of Deuteronomy 6.4: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.' Yet their belief in Jesus Christ as Saviour was expressed in terms which referred to Jesus as the Son, Word, and Wisdom of God and as the one who grants to his disciples the grace of adoption through the bestowal of God's Spirit (cf. Galatians 4.4-7). The first centuries of Christian theological reflection assimilated the confessions of both the oneness of God and the triadic form of Christian discipleship with varying degrees of concern for conceptual clarity and logical synthesis. The first major instance of a debate concerned with conceptualising the Christian experience of God as Trinity and bringing into coherence the emphases on divine unity and triadic distinction occurred in the third century. Tertullian (fl. 200), Hippolytus (c. 170-c. 236) and Novatian (mid-third century) all opposed doctrines that insisted on the radical singularity of God and attenuated the distinctions between Father, Son and Spirit to the level of modes of appearance. Tertullian insisted that the unity of God must itself be interpreted through the Trinitarian 'economy' and attempted terminological differentiations that made it possible to speak of God in terms of a monotheistic Trinitariansim: Father, Son and Spirit are one in 'substance', 'condition' and 'power' (substantia, status, potestas) while three in 'degree', 'form' and 'aspect' (gradus, forma, species).1 After the work of Tertullian, Hippolytus and Novatian, the conceptions of God as a radically

1 Tertullian, Adv. Prax. 2.

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