Theophilus on the Trinity
by Barry Bickmore
Jeff Lindsay, site owner of the popular LDS
FAQ asked a group of friends the following question about Theophilus
of Antioch, which I answer below:
I understand the earliest use of the word "trinity"
was by Tertullain in the 3rd century. Could I get some commentary on the
following quote by Theophilus of Antioch (To Autolycus 2:15 [A.D. 181]),
who used a somewhat different term, "trias" (according to Stephen
Robinson, Are Mormons Christians?, footnote 3 on page 120), which was translated
as "Trinity" in this quote sent to me recently:
"It is the attribute of God, of the most
high and almightly and of the living God, not only to be everywhere, but
also to see and hear all; for he can in no way be contained in a place....The
three days before the luminaries were created are types of the Trinity:
God, his Word, and his Wisdom."
Is this a step toward some of the metaphysical
doctrines that would be established in later creeds? What was Theophilus
really talking about and what is the significance of his viewpoint?
I'll summarize what the things Theophilus and his contemporaries did
and didn't believe in relation to the later doctrine of the Trinity.
Things Theophilus DID believe:
- God the Father as a variation of the Platonic "One".
- The "Logos" as God's "Reason", rather than as a
sort of "super-archangel" or "second God" as in the
Jewish literature. These two concepts started making significant inroads
into catholic Christianity ca. 130, according to Harnack. (Harnack, What
is Christianity?, pp. 202-203. See also my article on The
Angel of the Presence in Abraham 1:15-16.)
- Creatio ex nihilo. The Gnostic Basilides came up with this one in the
early second century, and it came into catholicism starting around 170
or so with Tatian. (Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon
the Christian Church, pp. 195-196.)
Things Theophilus DIDN'T believe:
- He didn't believe in the equality of the Trinity. Bettenson admits
that "'subordinationism'... was pre-Nicene orthodoxy." (Bettenson,
The Early Christian Fathers, p. 330.) Richard Hanson gives us this: "Indeed,
until Athanasius began writing, every single theologian, East and West,
had postulated some form of Subordinationism. It could, about the year
300, have been described as a fixed part of catholic theology." (Hansen,
R., "The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD",
in Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy, p. 153.)
- He didn't believe in the "eternal generation" of the Son.
Origen was the first one to unambiguously come up with that one. The apologists
of this period generally believed that God's Reason ("Logos")
existed eternally within Him, but then, at a certain POINT IN TIME, Jesus
was generated OUT OF the Logos, which is why he is called the Logos, as
well. "God, then, having His own Word internal within His own bowels,
begat Him, emitting Him along with His own wisdom before all things. He
had this Word as a helper in the things that were created by Him, and by
Him He made all things." (Theophilus, Ad Autolycum 2:10, in
ANF 2:98.) Check out my article Tertullian on the
Trinity. Tertullian was even more explicit on this point.
Theophilus' use of the word "trias" probably wasn't anything
earth-shattering. (After all, LDSaints can use the term "Trinity"
quite easily, but definitely don't mean the same thing as mainstream Christians
by it.) Therefore, it is only useful to show that he didn't believe in
a "binity" like some scholars claim for some early writers.
The real advance was made when Tertullian and Hippolytus (ca. 200 AD)
used the term "of one substance", but by that they only meant
that the members of the Trinity are "the same kind of being".
The meaning of the term was changed after Nicea, however, to mean that
they ARE the same Divine Substance. (See also my article on Why
We Believe in the Trinity - But Not Your Trinity!)
Once the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo was accepted, everything was
divided into two categories: 1) God and 2) everything else (created from
nothing). Early writers like Theophilus and Tertullian wanted to keep Christ
in the "God" category, so they postulated their theories about
God generating the Son and Spirit out of some portion of Himself, rather
than out of nothing. However, they clearly kept the Son and Spirit separate
from, and subordinate to, the Father.
The problem is that in the Greek conception of "the One",
there can be no divisions of any kind and no changes. If the Son and Spirit
were generated out of "the One" at a certain point in time, this
implies some division and change. The Apologists yammered on and on about
how this implied no change or division, but they aren't very convincing,
and this problem plagued Christianity for centuries. The Monarchians of
the early third century either made the Son into a "mere man"
or just another "mask" on the face of the Father. The Arians
later made Jesus into an angelic figure, but said he was created out of
nothing. The entire problem faced by the councils of the fourth and fifth
centuries was how to work out this problem, and they did it by saying that
the Father, Son, and Spirit are equal and "interpenetrating"
- the old "three centers of consciousness" bit.
Hope this helps. I can give you more references if you need them.
to "Barry's Early Christianity and Mormonism Page".