The First Use of Trinitarian Language in Church History

Church Father Friday is the ongoing examination of Patristic writings, controversies, biographies, and modern interpretations. These short selections from church history remind us of where we’ve been, and what God has done throughout history for the Church

 

The Church’s understanding of the Trinity is founded on Scripture and calcified through overcoming heretical controversies. Every orthodox Father following the Apostles used language that affirmed the Trinity in various contexts. But when was the protean use of distinct Trinitarian language in Church history? Often, Tertullian is thought to be the origin of Trinitarian labels because he used “Trinitas” to explain the Godhead. However, while Trinitas is the root of the word “Trinity”, and even though Tertullian was the first Latin speaking theologian to use it, he wasn’t first overall. The first use of Trinitarian language in Church history comes from a surprising source, Theophilus of Antioch.

THEOPHILUS OF ANTIOCH

Theophilus of Antioch isn’t considered one of the towering Patristic thinkers. He isn’t a Doctor of the Church. We don’t even have most of his writings. And yet, he was the first to use a term that articulates the One nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A moniker that would be in the middle of some of the fiercest theological throwdowns.

 

Theophilus of Antioch was, not astonishingly, the bishop of Antioch. Of the works Eusebius attributed to Theophilus of Antioch (1), only one has made it to our day, To Autolycus (written ca. 180). In it, we gain insight into how he was converted from being a pagan skeptic to believe in the resurrection of Christ. He says that “I myself also used to disbelieve that this would take place, but now, having taken these things into consideration, I believe” (2).  The entirety of the apologetic letter is to convince his friend Autolycus to believe as well.

THE FIRST USE OF TRINITARIAN LANGUAGE IN CHURCH HISTORY

When speaking of the creation of the world in Book 2, Theophilus allegorically interpreted the days as being connected to aspects of the Trinity. And when he got to the fourth day he explained it as a separation highlighting the transcendence and immutability of God as compared to His creatures. Then we see the first use of Trinitarian language, “in like manner also the three days which were before the luminaries, are types of the Trinity, of God, and His Word, and His wisdom” (3)

 

There it is, the first use of Trinity in church history. Being Greek, he used the Greek Triados instead of the Latin Trinitas. It wasn’t first used in a theological treatise, it wasn’t first used in a polemical document. The first use of Trinitarian language was employed by a man trying to convince his friend to trust in the Lord.

 

I doubt Theophilus knew how far this term would travel, and how intense would be the debates (which continue to this day) regarding this orthodox understanding of the Godhead. I don’t think he much cares right now because he is in the presence of the very God Whom he wrote about to Autolycus. The Church grows in her knowledge of God through having to defend and promote the deep things of the faith. But often, her collective knowledge deepens through evangelizing the lost.

 

 

Bibliography

1 –  Of Theophilus, whom we have mentioned as bishop of the church of Antioch, three elementary works addressed to Autolycus are extant; also another writing entitled Against the Heresy of Hermogenes, in which he makes use of testimonies from the Apocalypse of John, and finally certain other catechetical books. (Eusebius Church History Book 4.24.1)

2 – Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus Book 1.14

3 – Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus Book 2.15

To see the remaining work of Theophilus of Antioch check out the following link, it’s a short and fascinating read! https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0204.htm

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