Belief in the doctrine of the Trinity has fallen on hard times of late. Many people, in thrall to a still-potent modernist philosophical bent, deny the divinity of Christ even while upholding his teaching: when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asked Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, “For someone like myself who is drawn to Jesus’ teaching but doesn’t believe in the virgin birth or the physical resurrection, what am I? Am I a Christian?” Jones responded, “Well, you sound an awful lot like me, and I’m a Christian minister.” Millions of people in the global Oneness or Apostolic Pentecostal movement reject Nicene trinitarianism, which they claim is rooted in Hellenistic philosophy and Roman paganism rather than the teachings of the Bible, asserting instead that God manifests himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Even within conservative Protestantism, trinitarian theology, while perhaps publicly professed, has not exactly made its way from the pulpit to the pews. According to a recent survey of evangelical thought, while almost all agree that there is one God in three persons, nearly one-third believe that “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God,” nearly two-thirds agree that he “is the first and greatest being created by God,” and almost half call the Holy Spirit “a force” rather than a personal being.
Perhaps most famously, Dan Brown, in his bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code, ensorcelled millions into thinking that Jesus was a mere man whose divinity was an invention of the Council of Nicea: As one of its characters haughtily remarks, “until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet … a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal.” It was only in order to maintain a stranglehold on political power that Constantine and his acolytes ascribed the divine to Christ. With all of this muddled thinking about the trinity—extending to secular sources, liberal Protestantism, and even into conservative evangelicalism—it’s no wonder that “over the years since the fourth century CE, many, but hardly all of us, have simply been fairly insouciant about the whole thing.”
This confusion about, or lack of interest in, the doctrine of the Trinity is a peculiarly modern phenomenon. While the Trinity is certainly mysterious, and has been subject to debate throughout the centuries, its basic contours have been in place for many centuries—contra Dan Brown, even in the early church. The early church ecumenical councils were not simply power grabs, in which would-be despots and their theologian lackeys posited a trinitarian God in order to maintain a hold on the throne, gain influence with the seat of power, or subdue political enemies. They were a summary of what the church had, with few exceptions, and perhaps without the same theological rigor and grammatical precision, always believed. This is even true of the ante-Nicene church. It may not have had the grammar of the Trinity that developed over time, but the essential aspects were there: the divinity of Jesus, the humanity of Jesus, the hypostatic union, the eternal relationship of Jesus and the Father, the person of the Holy Spirit. All were present in the writings of the early church fathers, as they are in the New Testament. While the orthodox formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity would not come until later, many essential aspects of trinitarian thought were latent within the writings of the early church, particularly in those of Ignatius of Antioch, whose letters we will focus on in this essay.
Ignatius of Antioch and the Early Church
Ignatius is one of the most prominent of the early church fathers. He was one of the first bishops of Antioch, in Syria (Eusebius counts him as the third, after the Apostle Peter and Euodius). Much of what we know about Ignatius stems from his letters to various churches on his way to Rome and his eventual martyrdom. While his letters each have particular application (his letter to the Christians in Rome is especially concerned with his desire for them not to intervene in the matter of his martyrdom), there are three general themes throughout his epistolary oeuvre: 1) the unity of the church, especially under the leadership of the bishop; 2) the danger of heresy; 3) the glory of martyrdom. Ignatius was one of the most important leaders of the early church in the development of a single bishop presiding over an area. For Ignatius, these bishops maintained unity within the church—as such, bishops were to preside over the Eucharist in their jurisdiction, which also proved helpful in the pursuance of right doctrine. This pursuit of right doctrine was plain in his very language, which resembles early creeds meant to teach and disciple converts and catechumens. For many, however, Ignatius is most well known for his passionate desire for martyrdom, which he connected to his faithfulness as a follower of Christ, and which others have connected to a rise in the cult of the saints, in which martyrs could expect to receive honor and glory on this world as well as the next. He would eventually be martyred in Rome in 109 AD, probably because of his reputation as a leader of the Christians.
Within these themes, however, one finds a latent trinitarianism, hints at the orthodox doctrine yet to be formulated in the ecumenical councils. Even before Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon, the essential pieces of the conciliar summaries of orthodoxy were already present. Even when one looks to the Scriptures, these basic truths of the Trinity are evident. Several passages make clear the oneness of God, most prominently the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one,” but also in the New Testament book of James 2:19. And yet, within the Scriptures, three divine Persons are equated with God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father’s deity is a given throughout the Old and New Testaments. And yet, this same deity is also ascribed to the Son and the Spirit. In several places within the New Testament, Jesus Christ is explicitly identified as one with God. In his epistles, the Apostle Paul repeatedly calls Jesus Lord, giving him the divine name by which the Lord reveals himself to Moses (Rom. 10:9, Phil. 2:11, 1 Cor. 12:3). Jesus’ own self-conception was that he was one with the Father (John 10:30), which was clear enough to the people around him that the religious teachers accused him of blasphemy (Mark 2:6-7). Though there are considerably fewer references to the Holy Spirit, he also is ascribed the deity of the one true God: particularly, in Acts 5, lying to the Holy Spirit is equated with lying to God. When considering the baptismal formula of Matthew 28 as well, one can see a definite issue here, that the Bible declares firmly that there is one God, but that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God.
These truths would be restated and summarized throughout the early church. It is certainly true that the implications of the biblical teaching were fiercely debated for many centuries (and to some degree still are), particularly when considering Christ’s divinity and his humanity, and the relation between them. Yet, despite the herky-jerky nature of the development of trinitarian doctrine, one can see throughout the early church that the most prominent teachers, and most of the church in total, held to certain theological truths, namely, that there is one God who created all things, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the one who created all things, who was born of the Virgin Mary, and who was crucified, died, was buried, and rose again to save and redeem those who believe in him. Notes historian Michael Kruger, “There was diversity, but there was also a centre”—which was this rule of faith, held by Christians, church leaders, and regions which constituted the majority of the early church. This unity held sway throughout the patristic era, overcoming theological squabbles to again and again reaffirm orthodox doctrine. It was not the councils of 325, 381, 431, and 451 which imposed trinitarian thinking on a primitive church that held a limited understanding of the nature of Christ. These councils were simply the reaffirmation of a doctrine the church had long taught. “It became indubitably clear to the Church in the fourth century,” wrote Thomas F. Torrance, “that it is only when the Gospel is fully understood in this fully trinitarian way that we can really appreciate the New Testament teaching about Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and appreciate the essential nature of salvation, prayer, and worship.”
Ignatius is a key example of this point of view. Though his focus was frequently on pressing matters, such as maintaining unity within the church and his coming martyrdom, one sees in the very substance of his letters hints of trinitarian doctrine to come. This is so in five particular ways. First, Ignatius teaches a high christology, holding to the absolute divinity of Jesus. For Ignatius, Jesus Christ is no mere man, but he is God. Second, at the same time, he affirms the essential humanity of Jesus. In fact, most of his denunciations of heresy are directed toward docetists, people who believed that Christ only seemed to be man. On the contrary, Ignatius wrote, he could only endure the suffering that awaited him if the suffering of his Lord was also real:
But why then have I handed myself over to death, to fire, to the sword, to wild beasts? But to be near the sword is to be near God, to be in the presence of the wild beasts is to be in the presence of God—so long as it is in the name of Jesus Christ. I am enduring all things in order to suffer along with him, while he, the one who became the perfect human, empowers me.
Third, while the language of the hypostatic union was still to come, Ignatius attributed both divinity and humanity to the same person of Jesus Christ. Along with the union of the two natures of Christ, fourthly, Ignatius also upheld the close, eternal relationship between God the Father and God the Son, distinguishing them as persons, but clinging to the essential unity of God, “which he himself is.” Fifth, while, as with the Scriptures, he is not quite as prominent as the Father and the Son, Ignatius holds to the deity of the person of the Holy Spirit, who “comes from God.” In these basic positions, one can see many of the essential aspects of trinitarian thought that were yet to be summarized in the ecumenical councils clearly taught and upheld by Ignatius.
The Divinity of Jesus
While there is considerable doubt of Jesus’ divinity among many today, Ignatius was convinced that Christ was Lord. His greetings repeatedly evoke the deity of Jesus, either explicitly referring to Christ as God, as in his letter to the Ephesians and the Romans, to Christ as God’s Son, as to the Trallians, to Christ as Lord, as to the Philadelphians and Polycarp, to Christ as Savior, as to the Magnesians, or to Christ who is worthy enough to be invoked alongside God the Father, as to the Smyrneans. The tone of each of these letters is set by these greetings, saying that, whatever theme Ignatius happens to be propounding, its basis was the essential godness of Jesus. Neither is this merely Ignatius attempting to force a belief upon his interlocutors, a la Dan Brown. “In referring to Christ as ‘God,’” says historian Michael Haykin, “Ignatius evidently expects the Christians in Rome to be both familiar with a high christology and comfortable with it.”
This comports quite well with Nicene orthodoxy. The creed, set forth in 325, proclaimed that Jesus Christ was “the Son of God, begotten from the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, homoousios with the Father, through whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth.” While Ignatius does not quite anticipate the debate between homoousios and homoiousios, one can see throughout his work hints at this early orthodoxy on Christ’s divinity. We see, on the one hand, the Father portrayed as the source, in some way, of Jesus Christ. In his greeting to the Romans, Ignatius writes, “to the church that has obtained mercy by the greatness of the Father Most High and Jesus Christ his only Son; the church that is loved and enlightened by the will of the one who has willed everything that is, according to the faith and love of Jesus Christ, our God.” The Father loves and enlightens the church, according to faith in Jesus Christ, his only Son. One sees an ordered relationship, of the Father eternally begetting the Son—begetting, because that is the nature of the Father-Son relationship, and eternally so because Jesus Christ is still called God. He is not like a God, and it is preposterous to speak of God as if there was when he was not. God the Father is the source, with the Son being eternally generated: “begotten, not made.”
At the same time, Jesus is, for Ignatius, in so many words, “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.” There is no hint of subordination in Ignatius’s thinking, no semblance of hierarchy between the Father and the Son. Indeed, he explicitly condemns such thinking, when he writes, in reference to Christ, “Nothing is superior to him.” He is over all and above all, and as such, we ought to “give glory to Jesus Christ, the one who glorified” us. Who is deserving of glory but God, and who can grant glory but God? For Ignatius, Jesus Christ is not merely a human being, some man who pronounces wise ethical teachings without any claims to divinity. Rather, he makes clear that Jesus Christ is God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
The Humanity of Jesus
Jesus’ divinity is, as Haykin pointed out, almost taken for granted by Ignatius: He bids Polycarp “constant farewell in our God Jesus Christ. May you remain in him, in the unity and care that comes from God.” This language is throughout Ignatius’s letters, and evinces no sense of controversy in the term. The same cannot be said of Ignatius’s teaching on the humanity of Christ. Again and again, he references the very human quality of Jesus, but not in the same way he did Christ’s deity. Whereas Ignatius’s teachings on Christ’s divinity betrayed a comfort and familiarity on the part of the believers of his time, his beliefs on the humanity of Jesus reveal a knowledge that the doctrine was up for debate.
Docetism was one of the earliest heresies that gained popularity in the early church. Docetists taught that Christ only seemed to be a human. His coming may have brought true cosmic redemption (at least in a gnostic sense), but his coming was not in the flesh, it only appeared to be so. He merely assumed bodily form, lacking the flesh and blood that make up all other human beings. For some, this was a way to protect God’s impassibility, for how could a God without passions suffer on the cross? Nevertheless, the implications of this for Christian doctrine were vast and severe. One even sees evidence of it in New Testament times, in the writings of the Apostle John, particularly, in the ways he seems to combat docetic theology. Throughout his Gospel, he emphasizes the humanity of Christ, declaring that he “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), and that, after his death, “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:34). He does the same in his epistles, writing in 1 John 4:2 that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh,” and directly combatting false teachers in 2 John 7, saying, “many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh.”
Ignatius extends John’s emphasis. For him, this is not up for debate: “You should be fully convinced of the birth and suffering and resurrection that occurred in the time of the governor Pontius Pilate,” he writes. “These things were truly and certainly done by Jesus Christ, our hope. From this hope may none of you turn away.” If Jesus was truly God, for Ignatius, he was also truly human. He did not only appear to have flesh, who had literal flesh; he not only appeared to have blood, he literally bled for our sakes. He was “from the race of David according to the flesh, and is both son of man and son of God”; he had “one flesh” and “one cup that brings the unity of his blood”; he had both “flesh and blood.” His pronunciations point directly to the assertion of Christ’s humanity in the Nicene Creed: Jesus “came down and became incarnate, becoming man, suffered and rose again on the third day.” Indeed, for Ignatius, speaking to the extent of Christ’s humanity, if Jesus was not truly human, neither was he: “if these things were accomplished by our Lord only in appearance, I also am in chains only in appearance.”
These were not merely inscrutable scribblings of some ivory tower theologian (or whatever its second-century equivalent might be). The implications of this doctrine were enormous. As Gregory of Nazianzus would later say, “The unassumed is the unhealed, but what is united with God is also being saved”: if God does not actually become man, human beings actually have no hope for healing, for salvation. For humanity is diseased by sin, bent toward our own selfish desires, having no hope and without God in the world, and the sick patient is unable to heal himself, outside of intervention from another. If Christ does not become human, really and truly human, we are left in this destitute state; if Christ does become human, we can truly experience salvation and redemption, because humanity has been lifted up that it might be found in God. The resources for such an answer are, of course, rich in people like Gregory, but one can find similar sentiments in Ignatius as well. Jesus “died for us that you may escape dying by believing in his death”—it’s the death, the real death of Jesus that has the power to give us life, for it is only in Christ becoming human and dying that death might be defeated for the rest of humanity. Indeed, salvation is only possible because Jesus became human: “For he suffered all these things for our sake, that we might be saved; and he truly suffered, just as he also truly raised himself—not as some unbelievers say, that he suffered only in appearance.” Remarkably, Ignatius even used language that looked forward to the creeds that were to come:
And so, be deaf when someone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was from the race of David and from Mary, who was truly born, both ate and drank, was truly persecuted at the time of Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died, while those in heaven and on earth and under the earth looked on. He was also truly raised from the dead, his Father having raised him. In the same way his Father will also raise us in Christ Jesus, we who believe in him, apart from whom we do not have true life.
The Hypostatic Union
In the years to come, exactly how these two natures of Christ—human and divine—interacted with one another in the person of Jesus would be forcefully debated. The Chalcedonian definition clarifies Nicene teaching on Christ’s divinity and his humanity. Jesus is “truly God and truly man… one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, and no separation.” Thus, there were two natures for Christ, not merely one; the divine nature did not swallow up the human nature; and there were not two distinct natures disjoined from the person of Christ. Instead, divinity and humanity existed in the person of Jesus fully, completely, without dividing, without one subsuming the other, and without any semblance of the mixing of the two of them. This union of the two natures in Jesus Christ is known as the hypostatic union.
“Chalcedon was not the only possible solution, nor was it an obvious or, perhaps, a logical one,” contends historian Philip Jenkins. “Only the political victory of Chalcedon’s supporters allowed that council’s ideas to become the inevitable lens through which later generations interpret the Christian message.” This insight reflects the uncertain nature of history. It’s easy to tell a tale of the easy victory of orthodoxy throughout the age of the church, but oftentimes it is not so simple. What we take for granted is so often contingent on a plethora of details, including who wields the power of the sword. (It also includes, for orthodox Christians, the sovereignty of God.) And yet, while acknowledging that Chalcedonian theology was hardly a given, one can find seeds of it in the early church, and particularly in Ignatius. Argues Haykin, his letter to the Romans “bears witness to a common way early Christian theologians talked about Christ: Ignatius attributes to one and the same person, Jesus Christ, divine and human characteristics.”
Several times, Ignatius speaks of the suffering of God. In pleading with the Roman Christians to refrain from working for his pardon, he asks, “Allow me to be an imitator of the suffering of my God.” Elsewhere he speaks, in rather remarkable language, of “the blood of God,” echoing Paul’s words in Acts 20:28. This is remarkable not because it appears foreign to us—indeed, it may be the most modern thing about Ignatius’s theology. Many, if not most, would agree with Bonhoeffer when he writes, “only the suffering God can help.” Taken at face value, Ignatius fits quite well with these moderns. Yet, this is not quite what Ignatius himself seems to be saying. In his letter to Polycarp, Ignatius writes, “Await the one who is beyond the season, the one who is timeless, the one who is invisible, who became visible for us, the one who cannot be handled, the one who is beyond suffering, who suffered for us, enduring in every way on our account.” Ignatius seems to be writing here, paradoxically, of an impassible God who suffers for us. For many, this is inconceivable, and our modern ways of thinking tend to herd people into a pseudo-docetism, denying divine passibility to the point that Christ’s humanity is subsumed, or else into a kind of Hegelian-inflected theology, wherein God is one with us, particularly in his own passibility. And yet, Ignatius ignores both tendencies, upholding the union of humanity and divinity within the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is God: he is timeless, invisible, cannot be handled, and beyond suffering. Jesus is man: he becomes visible for us, and suffers for us. “For there is one physician,” he writes, “both fleshly and spiritual, born and unborn, God come in the flesh, true life in death, from both Mary and God, first subject to suffering and then beyond suffering, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Not only does this reflect orthodox doctrine as it would continue to develop, but it also necessary for our very souls: “For our God, Jesus Christ, was conceived by Mary according to the plan of God; he was from the seed of David, but also from the Holy Spirit. He was born and baptized, that he might cleanse the water by his suffering.” Because Jesus is man, he can identify with us, and become one with us; because Jesus is God, this union has the power to cleanse, redeem, and save us.
The Relationship Between Jesus and the Father
As trinitarian thought would continue to restated with more clarity and precision, the essential nature of the Trinity would come into focus. There was one God—one divine essence, one divine nature, one ousia—in three Persons—three hypostases who shared the divine nature, yet remained distinct. This language was nowhere near being developed in Ignatius’s day, as it remained for the Cappadocian Fathers to refine such a trinitarian grammar (though one can find it slightly earlier in Origen as well). Still, one sees also in Ignatius the makings of such a trinitarian understanding.
Ignatius understands Jesus to be distinct from the Father—his is no modalist understanding of God’s oneness meaning that he appears in various guises throughout salvation history. He could say, the Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Father. In defending the authority and ministry of the leaders of the church in Magnesia, Ignatius distinguishes between the persons of the Father and the son, writing of “Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before the ages and has been manifest at the end.” He upholds God the Father as the source of the Son, in the right order of the Trinity, claiming that Christ “came forth from one Father and was with the one and returned to the one.” Christ also, in the incarnation, was subordinate to the Father, walking in obedience to him. Indeed, that is how he defends submission to the governing bishop: “Be submissive to the bishop and to one another—as Jesus Christ was to the Father, according to the flesh.” There was no confusion of the persons of the Father and the Son in Ignatius’s theology. They remained distinct persons.
And yet, Ignatius upheld unparalleled unity between the Father and the Son. At various points, Jesus is called the mind and Word of God the Father. Ignatius echoes the language of John’s gospel, claiming that “our God Jesus Christ … is in the Father.” And again, in defending the work of the bishops, Ignatius appeals to trinitarian doctrine: “And so, just as the Lord did nothing apart from the Father—being united with him—neither on his own nor through the apostles, so too you should do nothing apart from the bishop and the presbyters.” Throughout, there is the assumption that there exists utter unity between the persons of the Father and the Son, a harmony which cannot be divided. For Ignatius, as for the orthodox church, the Jesus and the Father are one and distinct, of the same substance, but distinguished as persons.
The Holy Spirit
For all that the Nicene Creed devotes to the person of Jesus Christ and his relationship to the Father, about the Holy Spirit we only get the simple profession, “We believe … in the Holy Spirit.” In the same way, Ignatius’s focus on the Spirit is scattered, lacking the emphasis and strong language he uses in discussing the person of Christ. Still, Ignatius could declare with the church councils that the Holy Spirit is God. He hearkens to the baptismal formula by telling those to whom he writes to stick to Jesus and the apostolic message “in the Son and the Father and in the Spirit.” The Spirit is explicitly identified with both the Son and the Father, being described as Jesus’s Holy Spirit whose source is the Father. Most intriguing, however, is an extended metaphor. “You are stones of the Father’s temple,” he writes to the church in Ephesus, “prepared for the building of God the Father. For you are being carried up to the heights by the crane of Jesus Christ, which is the cross, using as a cable the Holy Spirit; and your faith is your hoist, and love is the path that carries you up to God.” Here, we see the economic Trinity in action. The building, the whole temple, belongs to God the Father, the source of all things, the unbegotten one. We have no way of reaching the temple—and, thus, no way of experiencing God’s presence, no way of reconciliation with God—without Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who carries us up by his cross. And as we are carried, we have the aid of the Holy Spirit, our cable which prevents us from slipping and enables us to reach our intended destination. This may well be what the Athanasian Creed is getting at when it says, “This is the catholic faith; unless a man believes it truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.” We need the Holy Trinity in order to be saved: the Father electing and adopting, the Son redeeming and revealing, the promised Spirit sealing.
Ignatius was eventually martyred—he did “attain to God.” And he ultimately proved to be highly influential, particularly within the realms of church governance and the growing Christian honor for martyrdom. Perhaps as important is his expounding of trinitarian doctrine. In Ignatius, early in the second century, we see trinitarian distinctives propounded with clarity, boldness, and an ease that suggests that this was no newfangled doctrine. It was not some view developed to prop up powerful emperors, nor was it something the early church created out of whole cloth to offer some kind of significance to the life of a poor carpenter. This was the apostolic doctrine, handed down by the apostles, which they received from Christ himself, further developed as the Holy Spirit guided church history, and plainly evident in the writings of Ignatius.