Did anyone believe in the Trinity before Nicea?

A charge that I have encountered in my comments is that nobody believed in the doctrine of the Trinity prior to the Council of Nicea. There is a half-truth to this in that, in the early days of the Church, the language of Trinitarian doctrine – namely, 1 God in 3 Persons, etc. – was not fully developed yet. The linguistic understanding of the Trinity that Christians hold today comes largely from the Cappadocian Fathers – Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus – who lived around the latter half of the fourth century, between the times of the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople. These three men lived during a time when Arianism (the belief that Jesus was not truly God) was very popular. Piggybacking off of the work of Athanasius, the great defender of Christ’s deity in the wake of Nicea, the Cappadocian Fathers would give the most detailed expression of what Trinitarianism affirms, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three co-equal, co-eternal divine Persons with one common being, substance or nature – that being of God. Because of this, it would be anachronistic to look for the fully articulated language of the doctrine of the Trinity prior to the ministry of these men. Nonetheless, what we can look for in the early Church is the teaching of the core principles of Trinitarianism; that

  • There is only one God
  • Father, Son & Spirit are the one God
  • The personalities are distinct in the Godhead 

One of the preeminent early Church fathers was Ignatius, bishop of Antioch and a student of the apostle John. Ignatius wrote many letters before he was martyred in Rome in the year 107AD. In his letter to the church of Ephesus, Ignatius states in his opening, “…by the will of the Father, and Jesus Christ, our God…” This statement is proof of two things: 1) Ignatius believed Jesus was truly God and 2) Ignatius believed that Jesus was distinct from the Father. He makes a similar statement in chapter 18, while also referring to Jesus as, “the Son of God who was begotten before time began, and established all things according to the will of the Father…” In addition to overtly stating his belief in the deity of Christ, Ignatius also ascribes eternality and Creatorship to Him – these two attributes being ones that are only found in God. In chapter 19, he goes so far as to describe Jesus as, “…God being manifested as a man…” Ignatius reinforces these beliefs in his letter to the Romans: “…to the Church which has obtained mercy, through the majesty of the Most High Father, and Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son; the Church which is beloved and enlightened by the will of Him that willeth all things which are according to the love of Jesus Christ our God…I also salute in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father…who are filled inseparably with the grace of God, and are purified from every strange taint, abundance of happiness unblameably, in Jesus Christ our God… to the Church which has obtained mercy, through the majesty of the Most High God the Father, and of Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son; the Church which is sanctified and enlightened by the will of God, who formed all things that are according to the faith and love of Jesus Christ, our God and Saviour…” These statements again affirm that Ignatius is a monotheist (he believes in only one God) while attributing that one essence of God to both the Father & the Son and, at the same time, maintaining a distinction between the Father & Son. This is Trinitarianian belief before the advent of the term Trinity. “For our God, Jesus Christ, now that He is with the Father, is all the more revealed (source).” “I glorify God, even Jesus Christ, who has given you such wisdom. For I have observed that ye are perfected in an immovable faith, as if ye were nailed to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, both in the flesh and in the spirit, and are established in love through the blood of Christ, being fully persuaded with respect to our Lord, that He was truly of the seed of David according to the flesh, and the Son of God according to the will and power of God; that He was truly born of a virgin, was baptized by John, in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him; and was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed for us in His flesh.” Look what what Ignatius affirms in this single statement: that Christ is truly God, that Christ’s unique office in the Godhead is as the Son and, simultaneously, that Christ is truly man. All of these beliefs are at the core of the Christian faith through the present day. “The depth of Ignatius’ doctrine of Christ demonstrates that such high views did not develop over time but are very primitive…high views of Christ in regard to His deity, His natures, etc. can be found as early in the (historical) record as any other belief.” “There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first passible and then impassible, — even Jesus Christ our Lord…our Physician is the only true God, the unbegotten and unapproachable, the Lord of all, the Father and Begetter of the only-begotten Son. We have also as a Physician the Lord our God, Jesus the Christ, the only-begotten Son and Word, before time began, but who afterwards became also man, of Mary the virgin.”

The Trinity is not a doctrine invented by men or a corrupt Church. It is the clear, consistent teaching of the entirety of the Christian scriptures and it was affirmed as such by the earliest generations of the Church.