Tertullian on the Trinity

©1997 Barry Bickmore, All Rights Reserved

A reader named James was confronted by a friend with a quotation by Tertullian that seemed to indicate he believed in the mainstream doctrine of the Trinity. Tertullian didn't begin writing till around 200 A.D., but still he would be an early witness if that were the case. Here's the quote from Tertullian:

    " this way also, that they are all of the one, namely by unity of substance, while nonetheless is guarded the mystery of that economy which disposes the unity into trinity, setting forth Father and Son and Spirit as three, three however not in quality but in sequence, not (three) in substance but in aspect, not in power but in its manifestation, yet of ONE SUBSTANCE and one quality and one power..." [Tertullian, Against Praxeas" section 2, (emphasis by the person who sent this to James)]

Did Tertullian believe in the mainstream doctrine of the Trinity? The following is my reply to James.

Hi James! Nice to hear from you again. Your friend is correct that Tertullian preached the Trinity is "one substance", and in fact he and Hippolytus seem to have introduced the term into "orthodox" Christianity at about the same time (ca. 200 A.D.) But what did he mean by it? Was he preaching essentially the same thing as the later creeds? The answer is "No."

If you look at my site you'll find an article called "Why We Already Believe in the Trinity - But Not Your Trinity". (Did I write it for you?) This goes over some changes in what "one substance" meant to Christian theologians before and after Nicaea. Suffice it to say that before Nicaea, "one substance" (Gr. "homoousios") was used in a generic sense. That is, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were thought of as the same "kind" of being, but differing in rank and glory. This took various forms - some believed that Jesus was a second God, but also a sort of "chief angel", while others believed the Father was the entire Divine Substance, but the Son and Holy Spirit were portions of it that were distinct from and less than the Father. When I say "distinct", though, we must keep in mind that they were careful to point out that when the Son and Spirit were generated, they were not "cut off" from the Father, because the "Divine Substance" by nature has to be indivisible. (For some notes on the "Angel Christology", follow the "Book of Abraham Links" link in the "Related Links" section of my site and find my article there on "The Angel of God's Presence".) Tertullian was one of the "portion of the Substance" guys.

Don't get me wrong - he sure as anything wasn't preaching Mormon doctrine either. He had accepted the "God of the Philosophers" - the "Divine Substance" or "the One". However, there were several elements in his teaching about the Godhead that were flat out contradictory to the later orthodoxy.

1) While Tertullian had dropped the earlier Jewish-Christian notion that God had a body in human form, he still believed that the "Divine Substance" was a *material* substance, and 2) he believed that there was once a time when the Son and Spirit did not exist as such:

    "Writers who are usually reckoned orthodox but who lived a century or two centuries before the outbreak of the Arian Controversy, such as Irenaeus and Tertullian and Novatian and Justin Martyr, held some views which would later, in the fourth century, have been branded heretical.... Irenaeus and Tertullian both believed that God had not always been a Trinity but had at some point put forth the Son and the Spirit so as to be distinct from him. Tertullian, borrowing from Stoicism, believed that God was material (though only of a very refined material, a kind of thinking gas), so that his statement that Father, Son and Spirit were 'of one substance', beautifully orthodox though it sounds, was of a corporeality which would have profoundly shocked Origen, Athanasius and the Cappadocian theologians, had they known of it." [Hansen, R., "The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD", in Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy, pp. 151-152.]

    "For from the moment when those things began to exist, over which the power of a Lord was to act, God, by the accession of that power, both became Lord and received the name thereof. Because God is in like manner a Father, and He is also a Judge; but He has not always been Father and Judge, merely on the ground of His having always been God. For He could not have been the Father previous to the Son, nor a Judge previous to sin. There was, however, a time when neither sin existed with Him, nor the Son; the former of which was to constitute the Lord a Judge, and the latter a Father." [Tertullian, Against Hermogenes 3, in ANF 3:478.]

3) Like I said above, the Son and Spirit were considered portions of the "Divine Substance", rather than interpenetrating "centers of consciousness" in a simple, indivisible "Divine Substance". And 4) consequently, the Father was considered first in rank and glory, while the Son and Spirit were considered second and third, respectively. Such "subordinationism" was suppressed by the end of the fourth century.

    "For the Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole, as He Himself acknowledges: "My Father is greater than I." [T]he Paraclete [is] distinct from Himself, even as we say that the Son is also distinct from the Father; so that He showed a third degree in the Paraclete, as we believe the second degree is in the Son, by reason of the order observed in the Economy." [Tertullian, Against Praxeas 9, in ANF 3:603-604.]

    "Whatever, therefore, was the substance of the Word that I designate a Person, I claim for it the name of Son; and while I recognize the Son, I assert His distinction as second to the Father." [Tertullian, Against Praxeas 7, in ANF 3:602.]

So anyway, it is anachronistic to claim Tertullian as a witness for Nicene orthodoxy, but he wasn't really a "dry Mormon", either. However, it can easily be seen that his theology was an important stepping-stone between the two sides of the stream - and this is exactly what Mormons should expect. On the other hand, this is NOT what mainstream Christians should expect. If they want us to believe that the Bible itself preaches "one substance" in the Nicene sense, why didn't ANYONE preach Nicene orthodoxy before the fourth century? The massive changes in Christian theology over the first few centuries are hard to explain without postulating some sort of apostasy, I think.


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