All Christians who profess belief in the doctrine of the Trinity believe that the doctrine of the Trinity is found in divine revelation. Where there is disagreement among Christians is the degree to which the doctrine of the Trinity, especially as it was later formalized, is clearly taught in Scripture and the earliest fathers. The disagreement in other words is about the degree to which the doctrine developed over time. Are 4th century conciliar statements mere rephrases of Scriptural teaching or do they represent a true advancement in understanding and explication of this central doctrine by the Church? In this article I will take a look at two Protestant thinkers, one a Trinitarian and one a Unitarian and argue that John Henry Newman’s theory on doctrinal development helps to take the best both Protestants have to offer. While the Trinity is taught in Scripture and was believed by the earliest Christians, the Church’s understanding and ability to explicate the doctrine did truly develop over time.
On the Trinitarian side, there is James White, a Reformed Baptist apologist who maintains an orthodox trinitarian theology. White, in his book The Forgotten Trinity tries to argue how clear the doctrine is in Scripture and that later conciliar formulations are merely restatements of Scriptural truth. On the other side there is Dale Tuggy, an analytic philosopher and self identified “Biblical Unitarian”, who rejects the Trinity on Scriptural grounds and argues that the ante-nicene fathers did not hold to it either. Tuggy even runs an entire podcast dedicated to the Trinity. Let us look at each view in turn and see how Newman’s views best account for the main arguments each side gives.
White’s Scriptural Defense
In his excellent book, The Forgotten Trinity, White offers a number of Scriptural arguments for the Trinity appealing to classic trinitarian texts such as the Carmen Christi of Phillipians 2, the prologue to John, and numerous other texts. White pays careful attention to Greek grammar and syntax and argues persuasively that the New Testament portrays Jesus of Nazareth as a divine person, equal with God the Father.
White also has a chapter on the Church Fathers where he tries to show that the biblical doctrine of the Trinity which he has expounded was received by the earliest Christians and has been believed by the Church from the earliest times. All of this rings true to Catholic ears. Where White errs is not in his explication and defense of the Trinity, but in his claims of its full and clear explication in both Scripture and the early Fathers. Consider what White says about Ignatius of Antioch, one of the earliest Church fathers. White quotes this passage from Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians:
There is one physician of the flesh and of spirit, generate and ingenerate, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first passible and then impassible, Jesus Christ our Lord.’Ephesians 7
After which he concludes:
One could well say that even fifth-century Trinitarian thought does not represent any substantial advancement beyond the concepts expressed here. Incarnation, the two natures of Christ–all clearly a part of the theology of the bishop from Antioch.The Forgotten Trinity pg. 183
While this beautiful line from St. Ignatius makes clear that Ignatius’ thought here is clearly in line with orthodox trinitarian theology and especially Christology, it is a stretch to say that later trinitarian thought “does not represent any substantial advancement” beyond the concepts expressed here. We will examine this quote more thoroughly below but note for now that there is no mention of the Holy Spirit in relation to Jesus Christ and God the Father. Thus the degree to which it is fully “trinitarian” is suspect.
Dale Tuggy’s Critique
Dale Tuggy rejects not only the Trinity, but even the pre-existence of Christ, thus staking out a position far more radical than even Arianism. From Tuggy’s perspective however, it is the traditional doctrine of the Trinity which is a radical 4th century innovation. Tuggy, not unreasonably, finds some tension between the deity of Christ and Scripture’s clear teaching of Christ’s humanity. Tuggy will ask, how can an immortal God die? How can an omniscient God be unaware of the date of the second coming? How can God be tempted? and so forth. Of course, trinitarians have answers to such questions. Perhaps most important is Pope Leo’s teaching of the communicatio idiomatum, or the communication of idioms, which holds that what can be attributed to the natures of Christ can be attributed to the divine person of Christ. Tuggy of course is aware of Christian attempts to explain away these difficulties in the doctrine and finds them unconvincing.
In addition to Scripture, Tuggy will point out that, in a strict sense, there were no trinitarians prior to the 4th century councils which defined the doctrine of the Trinity. Sure, he will admit that Church fathers prior to Nicaea called Christ “God”, spoke of the “trinity”, the unity of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but none of them gives an account that fully lines up with the account given at Nicaea in 325, Constantinople in 381, and especially the late 4th century fathers. Tuggy notes even the use of the word “trinity” in thinkers like Tertullian does not mean that such thinkers embraced later trinitarian doctrine
Tertullian or Origen…will always (when positively employing it) use “the Trinity” as a plural referring term, since they think that those are in the final analysis three things/entities/beings. In contrast, a proponent of a triune God theory may use “the Trinity” that way too, but she will also, sometimes, use “the Trinity” to mean the one God, the three of them together as one god.When and How in the History of Theology Did the Triune God Replace the Father as the Only True God? pg. 33
From these considerations, Tuggy concludes that the Trinity is nothing more than 4th century Catholic innovation and something which Sola Scriptura holding Protestants should reject.
With regard to the pre-Nicene fathers, John Henry Newman actually agrees with Tuggy, though his draws a different conclusion. Rather than seeing the Trinity as an innovation, Newmans sees the Trinity as a development of doctrine and the preservation of truths which are taught in Scripture and were received by the earliest Christians thus staking out something of a middle ground between White and Tuggy.
Newman’s Via Media
In the introduction to his masterful essay, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman offers pushback to the claim that the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine held to firmly by his Anglican Church at the time, was as clear and universal in the Church Fathers as many of his fellow Anglicans would suggest. While Newman would admit that there was broad agreement among the ante-Nicene fathers about the deity of Christ, an explication of the whole doctrine of the Trinity was lacking.
It may be true…that there is also a consensus in the Ante-nicene Church for the doctrines of our Lord’s Consubstantiality and Coeternity with the Almighty Father…But it is surely otherwise with the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity. (emphasis his)An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine Introduction sec. 10
Here Newman accounts for both the points of White and Tuggy. On the one hand he recognizes that it is true that Christ’s deity and equality with God the Father are taught by early fathers like Ignatius of Antioch as James White showed. However, such teaching, as Tuggy would remind us, does not constitute the full doctrine of the Trinity.
Newman, in a quote resembling Tuggy, goes so far as to suggest that not a single Church father before the council of Nicaea held to a perfectly orthodox view of the Trinity.
Moreover, it may be questioned whether any Ante-nicene father distinctly affirms either the numerical Unity or the Coequality of the Three Persons; except perhaps for heterodox Tertullian, and that chiefly in a work written after he had become a Montanist.An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine Introduction sec. 12
Newman does not say this by way of critiquing the fathers or by casting doubt on the doctrine of the Trinity. He does this rather to show the reality of the development of doctrine. What is present in the fathers as Newman points out are: ascriptions of Glory to the three persons of the Trinity, teachings on their unity, power, and substance, and even the use of the word “trinity”. Such teachings all reflect Biblical doctrine and point in the direction of the Nicene-Constatinopolitan creeds. Such creeds are not radical innovations but rather the fuller expression of belief and practice already present in the Church.
If we revisit the quote from Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to the Ephesians we can see how Newman’s reading of history is preferable to Tuggy’s or White’s.
There is one physician of the flesh and of spirit, generate and ingenerate, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first passible and then impassible, Jesus Christ our Lord.Ephesians 7
Here Ignatius, contra Tuggy, regards Christ as “ingenerate” and thus not merely a creature. He seems to suggest his equality with God the Father by referring to him as “God in man” but does not diminish his humanity noting that he is “from Mary” as well. We can see clear anticipation of later creedal statements on the incarnation in these words. However not everything he said is decisively trinitarian.
His expression “first passible and then impassible” could mean that Christ only now is impassible presumably after his resurrection. James White would most likely interpret Ignatius as referring to Christ’s human nature with those words. This illustrates care that must be taken when interpreting Scripture or the fathers in light of later teaching. Lastly, as already mentioned, there is no mention here of the Holy Spirit and while Ignatius does mention him in his letters, there is nothing clearly teaching that the Holy Spirit is God and of one substance with Christ and the Father. Thus, while Ignatius clearly anticipated later Christology in his writing, his statements do not express trinitarian theology as it would later come to be expressed in the fourth century and beyond.
Ignatius’ views clearly contradict Tuggy’s view that Christ is a mere creature so if Ignatius was even close to correct in his understanding of Christ, Tuggy’s view is wrong. On the other hand, Ignatius’ statement fails to do express later thought as clearly as James White claims. The truth is that what Ignatius expresses is consistent with what came later at Nicaea but, taken by itself, is incomplete and required further development over the next two centuries of Church history.
While much more could be said, we have seen that the doctrine of the Trinity provides a good occasion to see the true nature of doctrinal development. While Catholics should affirm both that the central doctrine of Christianity is taught in Scripture and was believed by the Church Fathers, the evidence of history shows that the understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity did develop over time and the Church came to grow in her ability to articulate this doctrine. Thus, a Protestant like James White, while right in his defense of this doctrine, oversteps the evidence when he claims that Scripture or the early fathers teach this doctrine as clearly as it was explicated in later creeds. On the other hand, a Unitarian like Dale Tuggy is correct that there is truly something new going on at Nicaea and Constantinople but wrong to see this as a radical innovation and departure from Biblical revelation. As always, the truth is in between such extremes and St. John Henry Newman’s development of doctrine enables us to see the truth of the Trinity in light of the historical record.