The Trinity in the Early Church (Part II)

Holy SpiritHistorian J.W.C. Wand argues that the orthodox belief of the early church included the deity of the Holy Spirit, as it was essentially argued along with the deity of Christ in the Christological debates and was held as popular belief among Christians.[8] Yet as Rebecca Lyman argues that one cannot merely accept popular opinion as orthodoxy, for while popular belief in the church did play an important role in the defeat of Arianism, popular piety was a more divisive factor in later historical Christological debates, such as that between Cyril and Nestorius.[9] While one certainly cannot unwittingly conflate popular opinion as orthodoxy, the uniformity that existed between the orthodox Church Fathers and the general Christian population seems to indicate that worship and theology were intricately related in early Christianity, that belief and formalized doctrine were the same confession.[10] Often times the “differences” in doctrinal belief were simply a matter of use of “mutually confusing theological terms.”[11] Early Christians then used worship as the locus of their theological beliefs – how they worshiped is what they confessed.

Coakley submits that even in the midst of the arguments of the Church Fathers for the full deity of the Holy Spirit, the catholic Christian Church “was characterized by a normative association of the ‘Spirit’ with charismatic gifts, especially prophecy.”[12] Historical evidence seems to indicate a movement which relied too much on the deity of the Holy Spirit, perhaps even placing the role of the Spirit over the Father and Son, and presenting a form of extremely charismatic Christianity that provided for a Trinity with the Spirit as the head. Coakley writes that this movement likely caused spiritual backlash in the form of Montanism, which “gave the Spirit a bad name… [and] discouraged explicit or apologetic use of trinitarianism giving priority to the Spirit….”[13] In extreme opposition to this position where the pneumatomachi (Spirit-Fighters) who rejected the full deity if the Spirit.[14] These opposite doctrinal extremes led to a mixing of belief in the Spirit, perhaps best represented in Origen, who believed that the Holy Spirit was both a transforming power (bestowed through spiritual gifts, baptism, and the Eucharist) and a guarded agent of God.[15]

prayers81714Other historical evidence does support Coakley’s view of a prayer based argument for the deity of the Holy Spirit. Athanasius of Alexandria wrote, “We pray, therefore… ‘inasmuch as we partake of the Spirit, we have the grace of the Word and, in the Word, the love of the Father.'”[16] Even though the formalization of Trinitarian doctrine by the Cappadocian fathers gave rise to a more hierarchical view of the Spirit within the Trinity[17], in the Early Church there was an importance placed on the Holy Spirit. While this may have been in part due to the effects of Montansm, there were other factors at work in the growing theological importance of a co-equal Trinity, as the argument for the divinity of the Holy Spirit was at least implicit in many of the Early Father’s arguments and contentions.[18]

To return to Coakley’s critique of Wiles for a moment, she labels his demand for evidence of “demonstrative force” concerning the threefold activity of God “an unreasonable demand, and one possibly based on a kind of naïve realism.”[19] While incontrovertible scholastic evidence for the Trinity may not be found, Coakley believes that arguments from religious experience can postulate a case for Trinitarian doctrine. We must disagree with Wiles’ conclusion that evidence from experience is circular, argues Coakley, writing, “If we dismiss all such evidence as ‘viciously circular’ in its interpretation, we foreclose all possibilities of expanding our own ‘horizons’… Without such foreclosing, we must judiciously assess all our available evidence, in inherent quality, quantity, and testimonial value; the very fact that it presents an approach to the Trinity that is not the ‘normal’ one already eases the charge of vicious circularity.”[20]

Baptism of Jesus MuralFor Coakley then, the question “Why three – why hypostatize the Spirit at all?” is answered by the argument from experience, specifically the experience of prayer, by which creation is conformed into life with the Father and the Son. The argument from this spiritual position was espoused by the Early Church Fathers, though their writings with concern to the Holy Spirit where strongly influenced by the Christological debates and the two distinct doctrinal schools concerning the person of the Holy Spirit. The arguments from Baptism and Scripture pointing towards the Trinity, while potentially persuasive, are ultimately support for the argument, as manifestations of experiential reality. In the end, Coakley believes that Wiles’ criterion of Scripture, Worship, and Soteriology in answering the Trinitarian question, while helpful in formulating the thoughts concerning the person and role of the Holy Spirit, are ultimately unsuccessful in defending the doctrine of the Trinity.[21]

While Wiles sets forth some excellent criteria for judging early Christian doctrine and its usefulness for today, he ultimately fails to provide a basis for some of the most important and formative doctrines of the Christian faith. In looking at the Christian tradition, one must remember that experience is important, as is an understanding of mystery; that is, that one cannot always simply comprehend and scientifically explain the incomprehensible and infinite.[22] This does not mean that all scientific theological inquires are useless –much to the contrary. In looking at Christianity, one can (and must) find the reasonable, well-thought out evidences for belief, if only as a supplement for the faith which must provide the basis for relationship. As the Apostle Peter implores, the Christian must always be ready to provide a defense of the faith that they hold. This does not mean holding to blind faith, but it also does not entail requiring an entirely scientific base for believing in the triune nature of God, a belief that has ample evidence for profession.


[8] J.W.C. Wand. A History of the Early Church to A.D. 500. Fourth ed. London: Routledge, 1994. 173-178. [9] Rebecca Lyman. “Lex orandi: Heresy, Orthodoxy, and Popular Religion.” The Making and Remaking of Christian Doctrine: Essays in Honor of Maurice Wiles. Ed. Sarah Coakley and David A. Pailin. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. 132-135. [10] G.L. Prestige. God in Patristic Thought. Second ed. London: SPCK, 1952. 242-244. [11] J.N.D. Kelly. Early Christian Doctrines. Fifth ed. London: Continuum, 2009. 253. [12] Coakley, 40. [13] Ibid., 44. [14] Kelly, 259. [15] Coakley, 44-45. [16] Cx. Ibid., 46. [17] At least in practice, as I note here. [18]. Coakley, 48. [19] Ibid. [20] Ibid., 49. [21] Ibid., 49-50. [22] Margaret M. Yee. Preface. A Science of God? By Austin Farrer. Second ed. London: SPCK, 2009. 4-7. See also Austin Farrer. The Glass of Vision. Westminster London: Dacre Press, 1948. 35-56.

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