Question: Does the definition of the Trinity predate the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds?

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Question: Does the definition of the Trinity predate the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds?

In early Christian history, there is a clear definition of how the Son is God, and how the father: As a king sends his son, who is also a king

Let's look back in Christian history, to the Epistle to Diognetus. The author, usually called Mathetes, writes:

"This [messenger] He sent to them. Was it then, as one might conceive, for the purpose of exercising tyranny, or of inspiring fear and terror? By no means, but under the influence of clemency and meekness. As a king sends his son, who is also a king, so sent He Him; as God He sent Him; as to men He sent Him; as a Saviour He sent Him, and as seeking to persuade, not to compel us; for violence has no place in the character of God."[1]

Justin Martyr calls Jesus "another God and Lord"

In the words above there is a clear definition of how the Son is God, and how the father: As a king sends his son, who is also a king. In this very old document there is no hint that would invalidate Widtsoe's words, in fact, they fit better than Psychological Trinity. Let's continue to Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with a Jew.

Then I replied, "I shall attempt to persuade you, since you have understood the Scriptures, [of the truth] of what I say, that there is, and that there is said to be, another God and Lord subject to the Maker of all things; who is also called an Angel, because He announces to men whatsoever the Maker of all things-above whom there is no other God-wishes to announce to them."[2]

So Justin calls Jesus "another God and Lord." If we then can talk of a "god distinct from the Father," are we not right in saying they are two gods?

Gregory of Nyssa reasons that the unity of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost lies primarily in their nature

The best explanation so far stems from Gregory of Nyssa in his essay "On Not Three Gods."[3] He reasons that the unity of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost lies primarily in their nature. Just as there is only one human nature of which every human being is a representative, there is only one divine nature of which every person of the Godhead is a representative.[4] Widtsoe especially mentions that the three personages are united in nature. LDS doctrine is in harmony with this statement of Gregory. As Gregory's argument goes on, it is an abuse of language to talk about "three gods," as it is an abuse of language to talk about "many men." He admits that it is the way people talk, but insists that it is wrong. I think, if we may talk about "two men," it is reasonable to abuse language the same way saying "three gods." Now, most people would find it strange if we refused to talk about "two men," because this is the custom, and if we want to be understood, we better use language as everyone else does. Therefore it is justified from this to say, "In the holy Trinity there are three gods." Gregory admits the weakness of his argument and then finds a very strong reason why that which is OK for the lower nature of man is totally wrong for the higher nature of God: They work together, and they are revealed together (Wirk- und Offenbarungseinheit). It is important to note, that this is how the LDS view the unity of the Godhead, too: One in purpose, one in action, one in revelation. This, according to Gregory, is the major reason why we should say there is one God, and not three.[5] This is the only real argument that Gregory can think of, why it is wrong to talk of three Gods: They do not work separated from each other.

In our modern industries another example springs to mind: The example of three workers in a plant. They work together on the same thing, let's say a lamp. They are workers, they work together, and the outcome is not three objects, but one. Applying Gregory's logic here would necessitate that we talk of "one worker in three persons." One might say, "But the workers work differently on the one object!" Well, this is surely also true for the example that Gregory gives. Read it in his own words:

But the same life is wrought in us by the Father, and prepared by the Son, and depends on the will of the Holy Spirit.[6]

Jesus, while on the cross, cries out "My God, my God, why hast thou left me?"

Further one should think about the crucifixion of Christ. God the Son hangs on the cross. He does the greatest deed of God, the Atonement. He bears all our sins. He suffers. Surely He exercises His divine nature in divine grace. It is a divine operation for sure. Still he cries out "My God, my God, why hast thou left me?" If the Father left Him alone, then it is plain that Christ alone effected this divine action. He did it alone! The Father planned it, the Father sent the Son to do it, but it was the Son alone who did it.

So, from common usage and from Gregory's argument, and also from the writings of other Early Church Fathers we see that it is fully correct and Christian to talk about a plurality of gods in the Trinity.


  1. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, "To Diognetus," The Anti-Nicene Church Fathers (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1867), Chapter VII. This beautiful little apology for Christianity is cited by no ancient or medieval writer, and came down to us in a single manuscript, which perished in the siege of Strasburg (1870). The identification of Diognetus with the teacher of Marcus Aurelius, who bore the same name, is at most plausible. The author's name is unknown, and the date is anywhere between the Apostles and the age of Constantine. It was clearly composed during a severe persecution. The manuscript attributed it with other writings to Justin Martyr; but that earnest philosopher and hasty writer was quite incapable of the restrained eloquence, the smooth flow of thought, the limpid clearness of expression, which mark this epistle as one of the most perfect compositions of antiquity. The author was possibly a catechumen of St. Paul or of one of the apostle's associates.
  2. Roberts and Donaldson, "Dialogue of Justin with Trypho," The Anti-Nicene Church Fathers, Chapter LVI.
  3. Gregory of Nyssa, "On 'Not three Gods'," A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Church, Volume V, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (New York: Publisher Unknown, 1887).
  4. Ibid., by Gregory of Nyssa: "What, then, is the reason that when we count one by one those who are exhibited to us in one nature, we ordinarily name them in the plural and speak of 'so many men,' instead of calling them all one: while in the case of the Divine nature our doctrinal definition rejects the plurality of Gods, at once enumerating the Persons, and at the same time not admitting the plural signification?[...]"We say, then, to begin with, that the practice of calling those who are not divided in nature by the very name of their common nature in the plural, and saying they are 'many men,' is a customary abuse of language, and that it would be much the same thing to say they are 'many human natures.'[...]"Thus it would be much better to correct our erroneous habit, so as no longer to extend to a plurality the name of the nature, than by our bondage to habit to transfer to our statements concerning God the error which exists in the above case. But since the correction of the habit is impracticable (for how could you persuade any one not to speak of those who are exhibited in the same nature as 'many men?'-indeed, in every case habit is a thing hard to change), we are not so far wrong in not going contrary to the prevailing habit in the case of the lower nature, since no harm results from the mistaken use of the name: but in the case of the statement concerning the Divine nature the various use of terms is no longer so free from danger: for that which is of small account is in these subjects no longer a small matter.[...]"If, indeed, Godhead were an appellation of nature, it would be more proper, according to the argument laid down, to include the Three Persons in the singular number, and to speak of 'One God,' by reason of the inseparability and indivisibility of the nature: but since it has been established by what has been said, that the term 'Godhead' is significant of operation, and not of nature, the argument from what has been advanced seems to turn to the contrary conclusion, that we ought therefore all the more to call those 'three Gods' who are contemplated in the same operation, as they say that one would speak of 'three philosophers' or 'orators,' or any other name derived from a business when those who take part in the same business are more than one."
  5. Gregory states: "For instance, supposing the case of several rhetoricians, their pursuit, being one, has the same name in the numerous cases: but each of those who follow it works by himself, this one pleading on his own account, and that on his own account. Thus, since among men the action of each in the same pursuits is discriminated, they are properly called many, since each of them is separated from the others within his own environment, according to the special character of his operation. But in the case of the Divine nature we do not similarly learn that the Father does anything by Himself in which the Son does not work conjointly, or again that the Son has any special operation apart from the Holy Spirit; but every operation which extends from God to the Creation, and is named according to our variable conceptions of it, has its origin from the Father, and proceeds through the Son, and is perfected in the Holy Spirit. For this reason the name derived from the operation is not divided with regard to the number of those who fulfil it, because the action of each concerning anything is not separate and peculiar, but whatever comes to pass, in reference either to the acts of His providence for us, or to the government and constitution of the universe, comes to pass by the action of the Three, yet what does come to pass is not three things. We may understand the meaning of this from one single instance. From Him, I say, Who is the chief source of gifts, all things which have shared in this grace have obtained their life. When we inquire, then, whence this good gift came to us, we find by the guidance of the Scriptures that it was from the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yet although we set forth Three Persons and three names, we do not consider that we have had bestowed upon us three lives, one from each Person separately; but the same life is wrought in us by the Father, and prepared by the Son, and depends on the will of the Holy Spirit. Since then the Holy Trinity fulfils every operation in a manner similar to that of which I have spoken, not by separate action according to the number of the Persons, but so that there is one motion and disposition of the good will which is communicated from the Father through the Son to the Spirit (for as we do not call those whose operation gives one life three Givers of life, neither do we call those who are contemplated in one goodness three Good beings, nor speak of them in the plural by any of their other attributes); so neither can we call those who exercise this Divine and superintending power and operation towards ourselves and all creation, conjointly and inseparably, by their mutual action, three Gods."
  6. Gregory of Nyssa, "On 'Not three Gods'."