Theology in the Patristic Era: R. Lucas Stamps on The Trinity

Historical Theology for the Church is a new book from B&H Academic that treats the entire 2000 year history of Christianity with a focus on doctrinal development through major figures, events, and written works. By steering this work “for the church” this textbook shows the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provide a resource for contemporary congregations. The following is an excerpt from one of the contributing authors’ chapters.

R. Lucas Stamps serves as associate professor of Christian studies at Anderson University.


Is the doctrine of the Trinity biblical? There is a sense in which this is the central question of Christian identity and of the emerging theological culture that shaped the church over the first several centuries of Christian history. This question raises the further problem of what it even means for a doctrine to be biblical. In other words, it is a question of exegesis and theological method – issues that were hotly disputed throughout the patristic era. Through many fits and starts, and many complicated layers of controversy and development, the church eventually found its way to affirming what has become the standard, orthodox definition of the doctrine of the Trinity at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

Historical Overview (172)

1. Pre-Nicene Developments

In the century after the New Testament, the basic building blocks of the doctrine of the Trinity were already being laid in the works of key thinkers in the Greek-speaking East and the Latin-speaking West. In the Greek-speaking East, the works of figures such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus were especially important in laying this groundwork, though it must be noted that none of the second- and third-century authors were saying precisely the same thing as the fourth century Nicene doctrine. The theologian must avoid anachronism and the notion that orthodoxy was a settled and unchanging norm.

2. The Council of Nicaea

It is commonplace to view the Council of Nicaea (325) as the watershed moment in the doctrine of the Trinity, to view Arius (d. 336) as the sole figure around whom heretical opinions of the Trinity coalesced, and to view the main theological debate under consideration of the deity of the Son of God. But each of these assumptions ignores certain complexities that attend what would only later become known as the First Ecumenical Council. The council, convened by the recently converted emperor Constantine, most certainly concerned the controversy sparked in Alexandria by the Egyptian presbyter Arius, who understood the Son of God as the first and greatest of God the Father’s creations. Arius had taught that “there was once when he was not” – there was a time when the Son of God did not exist. The Father alone is the true God, with the Sona s his highest creation, through whom he created everything else that exists. But in the Arian scheme, there is still a place to consider the Son in some sense “God.” But several theological trajectories of the late third and early fourth centuries, including the one represented by Arius, were willing to admit certain gradations within the divine life.

3. Pro-Nicene Theology

Throughout the middle of the fourth century, several alternatives to Nicaea’s homoousios were entertained by various theological trajectories. The so-called Homoians, especially Acacius of Caesarea (d. 366) and Eudoxius of Antioch (d. 370), suggested that the Son was merely ‘like’ the Father. The Heteroousians Eunomius (335-393) and Aetius (d. 367) doubled down on the ‘Arian’ position and suggested that the Son is of a ‘different’ nature than the Father. Homoiousians like Basil of Ancyra (d. 362) were willing to concede that the Son’s relationship to the Father was ‘like according to essence,’ but stopped short of Nicaea’s homoousios. The confusion and contestation continued until a more coherent “pro-Nicene” consensus emerged and was eventually canonized at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

4. Trinitarian Consolidation: The Contribution of Augustine

“Unlike Nicaea, which settled only a few debates and sparked several more, Constantinople should be considered the true turning point in the development of trinitarian doctrine from the first four centuries. Orthodox reflection on the Trinity thereafter operated within the parameters of the Constantinopolitan settlement. Although many important theologians of the late-fourth and fifth centuries are worthy of consideration, including Ambrose (c. 340-397), Jerome (c. 347-420), and Cyril of Alexandria (378-444), no other theologian exerted the kind of influence that Augustine of Hippo (354-430) did on the church’s trinitarian thought. His monumental De Trinitate is perhaps most well-known for the psychological analogies he employs as a way of understanding how three divine persons can be one God. But the work as a whole is much more concerned with the kind of biblical exegesis that undergirds the doctrine of the Trinity.

Case Studies (-)

1. Prosopological Exegesis

2. Partitive Exegesis

For the Church

The Trinity is for Christian biblical interpretation. Scriptural exegesis led the early church fathers to faith in the Trinity. Theologians such as Origen and Augustine were first and foremost biblical exegetes. Before and underneath their theological speculations stood a serious engagement with the biblical text.

The Trinity is for the Christian life. As Irenaeus reminds us, the Trinity is not some abstract datum of theological speculation, reserved only for advanced Christians, but constitutes the very beginning of Christian experience.

The Trinity is for Christian preaching. It might seem unfathomable to modern Christians, but the theologically dense orations of Gregory of Nazianzus were not academic tomes written for experts but sermons addressed to the faithful….contemporary Christian ministers should not be timid in proclaiming the doctrine of the Trinity in our preaching, teaching, and catechesis.

Historical Theology for the Church
Jason G. Duesing & Nathan A. Finn, editors
B&H Academic, 2021

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