Periodically you will encounter someone who casts doubt on the doctrine of the Trinity. People have made all sorts of accusations about it……one of the more popular accusations is that it was invented at the Council of Nicea in 325. Perhaps some people feel it is unimportant.
Nothing could be further from the truth. First, every group that I have ever seen that denies the Trinity also have a false view of salvation. Perhaps there is some group out there somewhere who denies the Trinity but also believe in salvation by grace alone through faith alone, but I have found none. All that deny the Trinity have a heretical view of the nature of salvation. Second, the doctrine of the Trinity was widespread prior to Nicea. As proof, here are the references to the Trinity prior to Nicea:
- Theophilus of Antioch (c.169 – c.183): “But the moon wanes monthly, and in a manner dies, being a type of man; then it is born again, and is crescent, for a pattern of the future resurrection. In like manner also the three days which were before the luminaries, are types of the Trinity, of God, and His Word, and His wisdom.”
- Of the Theophilus quote, scholar Philip Schaff says “The earliest use of this word ‘Trinity.’ It seems to have been used by this writer in his lost works, also; and, as a learned friends suggests, the use he makes of it is familiar. He does not lug it in as something novel: ‘types of the Trinity,’ he says, illustrating an accepted word, not introducing a new one.” (Schaff, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, 101)
- Athenagoras the Athenian (c. 177): “Father and Son being one”; The Son being in the Father and the Father in the Son, in oneness and power of spirit.”; Son was not brought into existence; “The Holy Spirit Himself”; “God the Father and God the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”; “The oneness of the Son with the Father”; “The communion of the Father with the Son”; “The unity of these three, the Spirit, the Son, the Father, and their distinction in unity” (A. Roberts, Ante-Nicene Fathers, 133-134; Schaff, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, 133)
- Clement of Alexandria (c. 192): “I understand nothing else than the Holy Trinity to be meant; for the third is the Holy Spirit, and the Son is the second, by whom all things were made according to the will of the Father.” (Stromata, Book V, Chapter 14) (when trying to build a case that Plato plagiarized from the Hebrews)
- Clement of Alexandria (c. 192): “’and put a ring on his hand’ Here is the mystery of the Trinity, which is the seal impressed on those who believe.” (Schaff, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, 583) (when commenting on Luke 15:22)
- Tertullian (220): “When a ray is projected from the sun it is a portion of the whole sun; but the sun will be in the ray because it is a ray of the sun; the substance is not separated but extended. … This ray of God…glided down into a virgin, in her womb was fashioned as flesh” (Documents of the Christian Church, 34)
- Dionysius, Bishop of Rome (259-268): “For the Divine Word must of necessity be united to the God of the Universe, and the Holy Spirit must have his habitation and abode in God; thus it is absolutely necessary that the Divine Triad be summed up and gathered into a unity, brought as it were to an apex, and by that Unity I mean the all sovereign God of the Universe. … For thus both the Holy Triad and the holy preaching of the Monarchy will be preserved.” (Documents of the Christian Church, 35)
- Gregory the Great (Gregorius Thaumaturgus) (c.270): “There is one God, the Father of the living Word. . . the Father of the only-begotten Son. There is one LORD, one of one (only of the only), God of God, the image and likeness of the Godhead, the mighty Word. . . the power which produces all creation; the true Son of the true Father, Invisible of Invisible, and Incorruptible of Incorruptible, and Immortal of Immortal, and Everlasting of Everlasting. And there is one Holy Ghost, having his existence from God, and being manifested by the Son. . . God the Father, who is over all things and in all things, and God the Son, who is through all things: a perfect Trinity, not divided nor differing in glory and eternity and sovereignty. Neither, indeed, is there any thing created or subservient in the Trinity, nor introduced, as though not there before but coming in afterwards; nor indeed, has the Son ever been without the Father, nor the Spirit without the Son, but the Trinity is ever the same, unvarying and unchangeable.” (Schaff, Creeds of Cristendom, Vol 2, p.24-25)
- Alexander of Alexandria (319) preached about “The Great Mystery of Trinity in Unity.” Arius attacked, claiming that Jesus was less than the true God, and of a different essence than the father. This contributed to the Council of Nicea in 325, which settled the matter in favor of what was always taught, the Trinity. Arius was denounced a heretic and excommunicated from Christianity. (E. Cairns, 133, 134)
The quotes above are all prior to Nicea, and show that the doctrine was fully developed and in use well before 200 AD. The term “trinity” was recorded as early as 175, a full 150 years prior to Nicea, and the context of that use shows that it was already well known to the reader.
All this is even more amazing when we consider that being a Christian was a potential capital crime in Rome from 65 AD until Constantine in 320 AD. So it is very remarkable that any writings survive from this period, yet we have solid evidence that the Trinity was taught from the very first.