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.

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