Very Early Trinitarian Expressions -- By: Stuart E. Parsons

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 65:1 (NA 2014)
Article: Very Early Trinitarian Expressions
Author: Stuart E. Parsons

Very Early Trinitarian Expressions

Stuart E. Parsons


While older scholarship identified the earliest use of Trinitarian terminology near the end of the second century in the work of Theophilus of Antioch, some recent studies have challenged this view. However, while affirming certain insights of these newer studies, it is necessary to revisit them in light of the historical setting of the second-century apologists. In reality, Theophilus and other early apologists evidenced a certain implicit Trinitarianism by affirming unity, distinction, eternal pre-existence and economic subordination in the Godhead. Studies of early Trinitarian terminology must look beyond explicit descriptions of the Godhead. They must consider also broad patterns of implicit Trinitarianism.

1. Introduction

Older concepts of the Trinitarianism of the second-century apologist, Theophilus of Antioch, have been challenged of late. This is significant, since he has often been considered the first Christian to use Trinitarian terminology.1 These older concepts assert that when Theophilus writes that God, his Logos, and his Sophia are types of a triad (τριάς), he is making the earliest terminological reference (c. 180) to the Trinity.2 J. N. D. Kelly represents this older perspective when he

writes, ‘In spite of his tendency to blur the distinction between the Word and the Spirit, he really had the idea of the holy Triad fixed firmly in his mind.’3 Some more recent studies have both nuanced and challenged this older assessment. For example, when Nicole Zeegers-Vander Vorst describes Theophilus’ doctrine of the Sophia of God as Stoic, she does not also show how his Sophia doctrine relates to pre-Nicene Trinitarian thought.4 Rick Rogers explicitly denies Trinitarianism in Theophilus’ writings. He asserts concerning Theophilus, ‘He is not trinitarian or intentionally the initiator of trinitarian ideas.’5

Our goal here is to affirm certain insights surfaced by such newer views while at the same time adding nuance to them in light of the historical setting of the second-century apologists. We shall see that while Theophilus makes expressions about God that may lack some of the explicit detail of later Nicene statements, he nevertheless evidences an implicit though not explicit sense of the Trinity.

It is somewhat simpl...

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