Home / Historic Christianity / Muslims and Jehovah Witnesses – The Apostolic Fathers Taught the Trinity

Muslims and Jehovah Witnesses – The Apostolic Fathers Taught the Trinity

Arians have been passing around a quote from the New Catholic Encyclopedia (NCE) on the Apostolic Fathers and the Trinity to support their claims that the Trinity was not part of Christian doctrine until the Council of Nicea:

“The formulation “one God in three Persons” was not solidly established, certainly not fully assimilated into Christian life and its profession of faith, prior to the end of the 4th century. But it is precisely this formulation that has first claim to the title the Trinitarian dogma. Among the Apostolic Fathers, there had been nothing even remotely approaching such a mentality or perspective.” – New Catholic Encyclopedia

Sources such as Muslim and Jehovah Witnesses specifically cite this portion of the NCE as a Scholarly source in their attempts to prove that the early Church did not teach the Trinity. However, there are two issues with their use of the NCE as a source, the first being that they quote the NCE deceptively only quoting a portion of what the Encyclopedia actually says on the subject:

Question of Continuity and Elemental Trinitarianism: From what has been seen thus far, the impression could arise that the Trinitarian dogma is in the last analysis a late 4th-century invention. In a sense, this is true; but it implies an extremely strict interpretation of the key words Trinitarian and dogma. Triadic Consciousness in the Primitive Revelation. The formulation “one God in three Persons” was not solidly established, certainly not fully assimilated into Christian life and its profession of faith, prior to the end of the 4th century. But it is precisely this formulation that has first claim to the title the Trinitarian dogma. Among the Apostolic Fathers, there had been nothing even remotely approaching such a mentality or perspective; among the 2nd century Apologists, little more than a focusing of the problem as that of plurality within the unique Godhead. … From the vocabulary and grammar of the Greek original, the intention of the hagiographer to communicate singleness of essence in three distinct Persons was easily derived. … If it is clear on one side that the dogma of the Trinity in the stricter sense of the word was a late arrival, product of 3 centuries’ reflection and debate, it is just as clear on the opposite side that confession of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-and hence an elemental Trinitarianism-went back to the period of Christian origins.  – (New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1965, Trinity, p299-300)

The portion of the text above that is italicized is what anti-trinitarian, Muslims as well as Jehovah Witnesses quote. However, in full the text from the NCE states that the Apostolic fathers did teach the Trinity as it was taught all the way back to the origin of Christianity. Jesus’ divinity as well as the Trinitarian concept of  Father, Son and Holy Spirit have always been part of Christianity.  What was not articulated by the Apostolic fathers as stated by the Encyclopedia were the specific words, Trinity and Dogma. But the concept was and always had been part of Christianity. It was simply not articulated with those two specific words.

The second issue with the claim that the Apostolic fathers did not teach the Trinity is that they did and it is clearly found by one simply reading their writings:

Polycarp 70-155 A.D Bishop of Smyrna. Disciple of John the Apostle.

For which reason He (God the Father) sent the word, that He might be manifested to the world; and He, being despised by the people [of the Jews], was, when preached by the Apostles, believed on by the Gentiles. This is He who was from the beginning, who appeared as if new, and was found old, and yet who is ever born afresh in the hearts of the saints. This is He who, being from everlasting, is today called the son; through whom the Church is enriched, and grace, widely spread, increases in the saints, furnishing understanding, revealing mysteries, announcing times, rejoicing over the faithful, giving to those that seek, by whom the limits of faith are not broken through, nor the boundaries set by the fathers passed over. – Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus Chapter XI

“O Lord God almighty . . . I bless you and glorify you through the eternal and heavenly high priest Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, through whom be glory to you, with him and the Holy Spirit, both now and forever”

Polycarp, being an Apostolic father who was taught by the Apostle John,  clearly taught the Trinity. He did however not use the specific word, Trinity,  but the concept of Jesus’ divinity as well as the godhead of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are in his writings.

Ignatius 30–107 A.D disciple of John

Since, also, there is but one unbegotten Being, God, even the Father; and one only-begotten Son, God, the Word and man; and one Comforter, the Spirit of truth; and also one preaching, and one faith, and one baptism; And God the Word was truly born of the Virgin, having clothed Himself with a body of like passions with our own. He who forms all men in the womb, was Himself really in the womb, and made for Himself a body of the seed of the Virgin, but without any intercourse of man. – Ignatius to the Trallians Chapter X

If any one says there is one God, and also confesses Christ Jesus, but thinks the Lord to be a mere man, and not the only-begotten God, and Wisdom, and the Word of God, and deems Him to consist merely of a soul and body, such an one is a serpent,that preaches deceit and error for the destruction of men. And such a man is poor in understanding, even as by name he is an Ebionite. – Ignatius, to the Philadelphians Chapter VI

On this account also they (Old Testament prophets) were persecuted, being inspired by grace to fully convince the unbelieving that there is one God, the Almighty, who has manifested Himself by Jesus Christ His Son, who is His Word, not spoken, but essential. For He is not the voice of an articulate utterance, but a substance begotten by divine power, who has in all things pleased Him that sent Him. – Ignatius to the Magnesians, Chapter VIII

For if there is one God of the universe, the Father of Christ, “of whom are all things;” and one Lord Jesus Christ, our [Lord], “by whom are all things;” and also one Holy Spirit, who wrought in Moses, and in the prophets and apostles;

If any one confesses the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and praises the creation, but calls the incarnation merely an appearance, and is ashamed of the passion, such an one has denied the faith, not less than the Jews who killed Christ. If any one confesses these things, and that God the Word did dwell in a human body, being within it as the Word, even as the soul also is in the body, because it was God that inhabited it, and not a human soul, but affirms that unlawful unions are a good thing, and places the highest happiness in pleasure, as does the man who is falsely called a Nicolaitan, this person can neither be a lover of God, nor a lover of Christ, but is a corrupter of his own flesh, and therefore void of the Holy Spirit, and a stranger to Christ. – Ignatius to the Philadelphians Chapter VI

Again, Ignatius, being another one of the Apostle John’s disciples, clearly taught that Jesus was divine, pre-existing with God who took on our humanity. He also uses the Trinitarian formula of Father, Son and Holy Spirit while not using the specific word Trinity. Other Apostolic fathers taught the Trinity as well:

Justin Martyr. 110–165 A.D

For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. – The First Apology Chapter LXI

For not only among the Greeks did reason (Logos) prevail to condemn these things through Socrates, but also among the Barbarians were they condemned by Reason (or the Word, the Logos) Himself, who took shape, and became man, and was called Jesus Christ; and in obedience to Him, we not only deny that they who did such things as these are gods, but assert that they are wicked and impious demons, whose actions will not bear comparison with those even of men desirous of virtue – First Apology Chapter V

For they who affirm that the Son is the Father, are proved neither to have become acquainted with the Father, nor to know that the Father of the universe has a Son; who also, being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God. And of old He appeared in the shape of fire and in the likeness of an angel to Moses and to the other prophets; but now in the times of your reign, having, as we before said, become Man by a virgin, according to the counsel of the Father, for the salvation of those who believe on Him, He endured both to be set at nought and to suffer, that by dying and rising again He might conquer death. And that which was said out of the bush to Moses, “I am that I am, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, and the God of your fathers,” this signified that they, even though dead, are yet in existence, and are men belonging to Christ Himself. For they were the first of all men to busy themselves in the search after God; Abraham being the father of Isaac, and Isaac of Jacob, as Moses wrote. – First Apology Chapter LXIII

Ireneaus 120–202 A.D

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: [She believes] 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,” . . . – Against Heresies Book I Chapter X

The rule of truth which we hold, is, that there is one God Almighty, who made all things by His Word, and fashioned and formed, out of that which had no existence, all things which exist. Thus saith the Scripture, to that effect “By the Word of the Lord were the heavens established, and all the might of them, by the spirit of His mouth.” And again, “All things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made.” There is no exception or deduction stated; but the Father made all things by Him, whether visible or invisible, objects of sense or of intelligence, temporal, on account of a certain character given them, or eternal; and these eternal things He did not make by angels, or by any powers separated from His Ennœa.

For God needs none of all these things, but is He who, by His Word and Spirit, makes, and disposes, and governs all things, and commands all things into existence,—He who formed the world (for the world is of all),—He who fashioned man,—He [who] is the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, above whom there is no other God, nor initial principle, nor power, nor pleroma,—He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, as we shall prove. – Book I Chapter XXII

Therefore neither would the Lord, nor the Holy Spirit,nor the apostles, have ever named as God, definitely and absolutely, him who was not God, unless he were truly God; nor would they have named any one in his own person Lord, except God the Father ruling over all, and His Son who has received dominion from His Father over all creation, as this passage has it: “The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit Thou at my right hand, until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool.” Here the [Scripture] represents to us the Father addressing the Son; He who gave Him the inheritance of the heathen, and subjected to Him all His enemies. Since, therefore, the Father is truly Lord, and the Son truly Lord, the Holy Spirit has fitly designated them by the title of Lord. – Against Heresies Book III Chapter VI

For with Him were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, by whom and in whom, freely and spontaneously, He made all things, to whom also He speaks, saying, “Let Us make man after Our image and likeness;” He taking from Himself the substance of the creatures [formed], and the pattern of things made, and the type of all the adornments in the world. – Against Heresies Book IV Chapter XX

It does not follow because men are endowed with greater and less degrees of intelligence, that they should therefore change the subject-matter [of the faith] itself, and should conceive of some other God besides Him who is the Framer, Maker, and Preserver of this universe, (as if He were not sufficient for them), or of another Christ, or another Only-begotten. – Book 1 Chapter X.3.

But he also subjoined Him who obtains and retains possession; for he holds who binds, but he is held who is bound. And this he did without any comparison, so that, apostate slave as he was, he might not be compared to the Lord: for not he alone, but not one of created and subject things, shall ever be compared to the Word of God, by whom all things were made, who is our Lord Jesus Christ. – Book 3 Chapter VIII.2

Clearly, the Apostolic fathers did teach the Trinity. The fact that Muslims and Jehovah Witnesses misquote, most likely intentionally and deceptively, a Catholic Encyclopedia out of context as shown does not prove that the early Christians were not Trinitarian. Instead,  their misquoting of the NCE out of context only proves their inability to truthfully teach anything that does not conform to their false beliefs. As always one who really wishes to teach people truth should go to the source itself. A quick study of the Apostolic fathers show Muslims, Jehovah Witnesses and other such anti-trinitarians to be in error and spreading myths that are easily debunked.

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