Question: What were early Christian beliefs on the nature of God?

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Question: What were early Christian beliefs on the nature of God?

We do know that Christian orthodoxy before Nicaea was not the Trinitarian creeds now popular

'Subordinationism', it is true, was pre-Nicean orthodoxy.[1]

‘Subordinationism’ is a doctrine which means that Jesus and/or the Holy Ghost are ‘subordinate’ or ‘subject’ to God the Father. In subordinationism, Jesus must be a separate being from the Father, because you can’t be subject to yourself! This was the orthodox position before the Nicean council. Ideas that were once orthodox were later considered unacceptable after the councils altered and added to the doctrine.

Writers who are usually reckoned orthodox but who lived a century or two centuries before the outbreak of the Arian Controversy, such as Irenaeus and Tertullian and Novatian and Justin Martyr, held some views which would later, in the fourth century, have been branded heretical...Irenaeus and Tertullian both believed that God had not always been a Trinity but had at some point put forth the Son and the Spirit so as to be distinct from him. Tertullian, borrowing from Stoicism, believed that God was material (though only of a very refined material, a kind of thinking gas), so that his statement that Father, Son and Spirit were 'of one substance', beautifully orthodox though it sounds, was of a corporeality which would have profoundly shocked Origen, Athanasius and the Cappadocian theologians, had they known of it.[2]

And:

It [subordinationism] is a characteristic tendency in much Christian teaching of the first three centuries, and is a marked feature of such otherwise orthodox Fathers as St. Justin and Origen…Where the doctrine [of the Trinity] was elaborated, as e.g. in the writing of the Apologists, the language remained on the whole indefinite, and, from a later standpoint, was even partly unorthodox. Sometimes it was not free from a certain subordinationism.[3]

Christians whose ideas were completely orthodox earlier would have been considered ‘heretics’

So, Christians whose ideas were completely orthodox earlier would have been considered ‘heretics’ (i.e. going against the accepted doctrine) after the Nicean councils. This seems to be clear evidence that the doctrine was radically changed.

One also notes that Paul and the other New Testament writers would have been likewise ‘unorthodox’. Eusebius, an early Church historian, was even termed "blatantly subordinationist" by a Catholic author.[4]

Even after the Trinitarian ideas were formed, there were three ‘camps’ of believers that understood the matter in very different ways:

If such was the teaching of Athanasius and his allies [i.e. homousis as numerical unity of substance, rather than ‘the same kind of being’ in the three persons of the Godhead] , at least three types of theology found shelter at different times in the anti-Nicean camp. The first, indefinite, on occasion ambiguous on the crucial issues, but on the whole conciliatory, reflects the attitude of the great conservative 'middle party'.... Its positive doctrine is that there are three divine hypostases [i.e. persons], separate in rank and glory but united in harmony of will.[5]

Thus, most believers initially believed that there were three persons with a united will. It was only later that this group was “won over” to Athanasius and his group’s brand of Trinitarianism, which is the basis for today’s understanding in most of Christianity. Indeed, Athanasius and his cadre were decidedly in the minority:

The victory over Arianism achieved at the Council was really a victory snatched by the superior energy and decision of a small minority with the aid of half-hearted allies. The majority did not like the business at all, and strongly disapproved of the introduction into the Creed . . . of new and untraditional and unscriptural terms.[6]

And, there is a noted tendency for some Christian writers to assume that the way they understand the nature of God is the only way in which anyone could have understood it. An evangelical scholar notes:

The view of God worked out in the early [postapostolic] church, the "biblical-classical synthesis," has become so commonplace that even today most conservative [Protestant and Catholic] theologians simply assume that it is the correct scriptural concept of God and thus that any other alleged biblical understanding of God . . . must be rejected. The classical view is so taken for granted that it functions as a preunderstanding that rules out certain interpretations of Scripture that do not "fit" with the conception of what is "appropriate" for God to be like, as derived from Greek metaphysics.[7]

Notes

  1. Henry Bettenson, editor and translator, The Early Christian Fathers:A Selection from the Writings of the Fathers from St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius, (Oxford University Press: 1969), 239. ISBN 0192830090.
  2. RPC Hansen, "The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD", in Rowan Williams, editor, The Making of Orthodoxy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 151–152.
  3. FL Cross and EA Livingston, editors, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd edition, (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), 1319, 1394.
  4. RL Richard, "Trinity, Holy", in New Catholic Encyclopedia, 15 vols., (New York:McGraw-Hill, 1967) 14:298.
  5. JND Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (New York: Harper, 1978), 247–248.
  6. IF Bethune-Baker, An Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine, 8th edition, (London: Methuen, 1949), 171. (emphasis added)
  7. John Sanders; cited in Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 60.