CH101 - The Third Century

The Expansion of the Church, 202 - 303 A.D.

The Severan Persecution
Clement of Alexandria
Origen of Alexandria
The Decian Persecution
Cyprian, Bishops and Pope
New Testament Canon, Part 5
The Issue of the Trinity
The Church Prospers
Key People:
Emperor Diocletian
Key Documents:
Protrepticus-The Exhortation
Paidagogus-The Tutor
On First Principles
Contra Celsum
On the Lapsed
On the Unity of the Church

The Issue of the Trinity (a brief overview)
The belief in what would ultimately be called "the trinity" begins in the middle of the first century, first with the Apostle Paul and most clearly articulated by John in his gospel and in the Revelation at the end of the first century.

[There will be a paper for download soon on the development of the trinity - you can request this paper to be sent directly to you - just give me your name and e-mail address.]

Until the first part of the third century and Origen of Alexandria, there really had not been any significant theological writing on this issue. Until Origen there was a simple acknowledgment of NT references, mainly John 1:1. By "simple" I mean a simple belief of what was written without trying to figure it out and explain it. What takes place, from this point forward, is that church councils and various writers try to define a theological point that almost all adherents admited was a "mystery."

Selections from the New Testament
There are numerous examples from the New Testament - for our purpose we will look at only a few. Paul’s creedal formula in 1 Cor. 8:6 is interesting - Paul uses the same Greek construction in this text to describe God and Christ. In English,

"...there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord (kurios) Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

Larry Hurtado deals extensively with the early usage of kurios in his comprehensive work, LORD JESUS CHRIST, Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans 2003) listing in Amazon. Hurtado gives a good account of how Paul uses "Lord" as a designation for Jesus to clearly identify him with YHWH in the Old Testament (see pages 108-118 where he specifically deals with this text and the Philippians 2 text mentioned below). Hurtado reminds us that in the LXX (the OT version cited by all the NT writers) YHWH is translated as kurios,

In this astonishingly bold association of Jesus with God, Paul adapts wording from the tradition Jewish confession of God's uniqueness, known as the Shema, from Deuteronomy 6:4, "Hear O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord" (Kyrios heis estin [LXX], translating Heb. Yahweh 'echad). p.114

Then the Philippians 2 text:
"...Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus..."

While I have doubts that most of the NT writers knew the Hebrew text, Paul probably did, yet he makes no effort to guard the sacred Name of Yahweh (YHWH). Here he refers to Yahweh with the traditional Greek ho theos (the God). He uses Hebrew terms at other times (as do other NT writers) but nowhere does he make reference to the sacred name - except that for Paul kurios IS a reference for YHWH.

In this Philippians 2 text, “every knee will bow and every tongue confess” Paul is citing Isaiah 45:23, a clear OT “one God” text. Yet Paul is using it in reference to Jesus. He does this in Rom 14:11 as well. Paul has just said that God has “exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name above every name.” Paul intentionally says every name. Being a first century Jew, would he think Jesus would be above YHWH? No, Paul is saying Jesus IS YHWH.

The Gospel of John
John's gospel is the most deity-oriented of the gospels and it is dated late in the first century. John is the only NT writer to clearly refer to Jesus as the “word,” or logos. While there are similarities to Philo's logos here, John certainly kicks open the door with respect to the divinity of Jesus, and the centrality of that message:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1

"I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I am!" John 8:58

[Notice the graphic in the upper right section of the header above - the archway entrance into St Mary's divinity school in St Andrews, Scotland. John 1:1 in Latin - In Principio Erat Verbum]

The famous “I AM” text of Exodus is rendered ego eimi in the LXX. It is important to remember that Jesus almost certainly did not speak these words in Greek, but rather in Aramaic. This, of course, would put more emphasis on the declaration than even ego eimi can convey. The fact that John records this pericope with ego eimi in Greek indicates his intention of showing the claim of Jesus (or at the very least the view the church had of Jesus at the end of the first century).

Against the suggestion that we insert the personal pronoun "he" after “I am,” it also needs to be pointed out that the construction of the John 8:58 text is unusual. Either the statement ends as most translations render it, “I am,” or it must read “I am before Abraham was born.” Either reading is unusual and points to the intentionality of John to make a point of showing a claim of Jesus to divine equality.

Early Christianity
Ignatius (circa 112-114AD) affirms Jesus as God in the flesh, using the Logos theology of John's gospel, the Word – and to keep anyone from misunderstanding that he might be speaking of Jesus in a docetic or ebionitic way, “both made and not made,”

There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first possible and then impossible, even Jesus Christ our Lord.    Ignatius to the Ephesians 7 (short)

...our Physician is the only true God, the unbegotten and unapproachable, the Lord of all, the Father and Begetter of the only-begotten Son. We have also as a Physician the Lord our God, Jesus the Christ, the only-begotten Son and Word, before time began, but who afterwards became also man, of Mary the virgin. For "the Word was made flesh."
Ignatius to the Ephesians 7 (long version)

While it is true that we have two versions of Ignatius (a short and a longer, more “orthodox” version), one can see a strong pre-existence Christology even in the shorter version.

Irenaeus (cir. 175 AD) wrote against Gnostics and is fairly consistent with Ignatius, but also further elaborates the divinity of Jesus,

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father "to gather all things in one," and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father...    Against the Heresies 10.1

Through the second century most of the discussion that relates to the concept of trinity focused on the nature of Jesus. First the church battled against ebionitic christology, insisting on the divinity of Jesus. Then some of the fathers battled against docetic christology that existed in many gnostic groups. There is very little discussion on the Holy Spirit. You can see that Irenaeus affirms the Holy Spirit, but there is no divinity language. There is evidence in Clement and Origen that teaching on the Holy Spirit was reserved for teaching catechumens (young believers preparing for baptism) and was guarded, kind of secret.

Up to this point the discussion tended to focus on "logos theology," trying to explain John 1:1. With Sabellius hypostasis was introduced, the idea of "substance" or "personality." Around 220 AD a Libyan leader named Sabellius rejected the idea of three personalities, wanting to hold tightly to a monotheistic position. Sabellius promoted a type of modalism, that each part of the trinity was revealed through energies but did not have a separate personality.

In the late 250's this theological discussion was taken up by Dionysius, the bishop of Rome and the bishop of Alexandria (and a student of Origen), also named Dionysius. To make things more confusing these two church leaders were not fluent with each other's language which caused what Frend calls "a comedy of errors." Dionysius of Rome understood the Greek word hypostasis to mean "substance" when his counterpart in Alexandria was actually talking about "personality." This linguistic struggle only made a delicate and technical discussion more difficult. In addition, the Greek word homoousias (same substance) had also been introduced in the discussion to reference whether the Father and the Son were of the "same substance." The Alexandrian Dionysius used the term "same substance," but refused to rely on it theologically because the word was not used in any biblical text. The Roman Dionysius was fully prepared for this usage.

In the end this discussion showed the willingness of regional bishops to work together for a common faith, but it also opened the door for the future problems that would follow. The concept of homoousias would resurface and the bishops at Nicea would act in a definitive fashion.

Paul of Samosata
In around 260 AD Paul of Samosata became the bishop of Antioch. Paul was a charismatic man - described by Eusebius as "loud-mouthed" and "brash." He had a lofty bishop's throne built for himself; he shouted and waved his hands while preaching; he smacked his thighs and stomped his feet to bring emphasis in his sermons; he called for people to wave hankerchiefs when he said anything that demanded a rowdy response. All of these things only made his theological abberations stand out.

With Paul of Samosata the difference between Antioch and Alexandria clearly comes to the surface. A strong Jewish influence had continued in the church of Antioch and is manifested in the theology of Samosata by an ebionitic slant, a focus on the humanity of Jesus. Paul of Samosata, who held a very dim view of Origen, believed that Jesus had not been eternally united with the Logos, but had been infused with Logos at his baptism.

In 264/265 Dionysius of Alexandria attacked bishop Paul's theology headon, calling a council - there were actually 2-3 different councils, each being used to sway enough leadership to act against Paul. At a council (cir. 265 AD) the Alexandrian bishops won the day and pronounced that in order to be in the catholic church one must affirm the preexistence of Christ. In 268 AD, after failed attempts to defrock him, a group of bishops called on the help of the Roman government (Aurelian) to deal with Paul for his lack of orthodoxy. He was able secure support from Zenobia, the Palmyrene empress which protected him from the bishops actions. This represented the first time Christian bishops petitioned a Roman official for help. Aurelian deferred the case to the bishop of Rome which is the precedent followed later by Constantine.

The Coming Controversy
These third century struggles merely foreshadow the coming controversy of the fourth century. What are now known as the Donatist and Arian controversies will ignite some of the worst strife to date within the Christian Church. These will, in part, lead to the first major Church Councils, Arles in 314 and the famous Council of Nicea in 325. This council is famous partly because the bishops were summoned by the Roman Emperor, Constantine who hoped it would be the crowning achievement of the age of peace in the Roman Empire.

Related Articles:
The Donatist and Arian controversies
The Council of Nicea

Questions, Comments or Criticisms:
You can send an email to directly to me Al Baker, CH101.
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Third Century Church History
3rd Century Church Heresies
Severe Roman Persecution of Christians
Third Century Christian Baptism
Third Century Bishops
Third Century Church Fathers
3rd Century Christianity
Clement of Alexandria and Heresy
Clement of Alexandria and The Instructor
3rd Century Fathers - Christianity
Clement of Alexandria
Origen of Alexandria
Decian Persecutions
Cyprian on The Lapsed
Bishop Cyprian - Novatians
Cyprian - Lapsed Christians
Clement of Alexandria and Prayer
Clement of Alexandria and Prayer
Third Century Christian History
The Trinity in the 3rd Century
Paidagogus - Stromateis - Miscellanies
Origen - De Principii - Principles
Paul of Samosata - Trinity
New Testament Canon, Canonized
Questions regarding Christian Issues
Clement of Alexandria and The Trinity
Clement of Alexandria and Contemplation
Third Century Christian Issues
Diocletian Persecution of Christians
Diocletian Persecutes Early Church
Novatian Baptism - Cyprian of Carthage
Early Christianity New Testament
Early Christianity Constantine and War
Important Issues in Early Christianity
Clement of Alexandria and Stromateis
Stromata, Miscellanies or Stromateis