Summary: This study looks at the writings of the church prior to the first church council. Beginning at the apostles and those they discipled, we can see what the church believed from the beginning.
What the early church believed
In Part 1 we set the stage for the council. We looked at the fact that these men were Christians who suffered for their faith. Just 14 years earlier, they came out of the last great Roman persecution. They resisted against the attacks from outside the church at the peril of their own lives. Now a new threat was becoming strong inside the church. It is clear that the participants of the Council of Nicaea believed in the Trinitarian view and voted almost unanimously for the church to affirm this belief. The next logical question to ask would be, is this what the first and second century church believed?
The first and second century believers are the closest to the apostles. Some of the quotes we will look at are men who were taught directly by the apostles. Some were even discipled one-on-one by the apostles. Many of these men wrote epistles to churches to refute non-Trinitarian beliefs. Some groups argue that the word Trinity is not in the scriptures and was not used until after the Council of Nicaea which was in 325 AD. However, we will see that this does not agree with the historical documents these men left behind. Also, a concept does not have to be labeled by scripture to be taught in scripture. This is an invalid argument because every religious group uses terms to describe principles that they believe are taught in the scripture. Just because we use a term to describe a principle does not obligate us to find that term in scripture.
It is also said that the Trinity comes from pagan origins because several cults had similar beliefs. This claim does hold water either. For one, Satan always counterfeits God. If a cult quotes scripture, does this mean scripture is pagan? In Matthew 24 Jesus said,
23 "Then if anyone says to you, ’Look, here is the Christ!’ or ’There!’ do not believe it.
24 "For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.
25 "See, I have told you beforehand.
There are many people posing as Christ and many false prophets and some using great signs. Does this mean we deny Christ and discredit all the prophets of scripture simply because there are false prophets around? No. Just because there are old pagan religions that used three as a sacred number does not mean that Christianity is a pagan culture any more than I can claim that all money is a counterfeit because some money has been counterfeited.
What matters is, what do the scriptures teach, what did the apostles believe and what did the apostles pass to their disciples? Let’s go back to the first century and see what clues to this debate we can dig up.
74 AD in The Letter of Barnabas, he says,
“And further, my brethren, if the Lord [Jesus] endured to suffer for our soul, he being the Lord of all the world, to whom God said at the foundation of the world, ’Let us make man after our image, and after our likeness,’ understand how it was that he endured to suffer at the hand of men” (Letter of Barnabas 5).
The Didache is a church manual written in Greek and is dated around 60-80 AD. This manual quotes from Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, Thessalonians, and 1 Peter. It quotes 22 times from the book of Matthew. Concerning baptism, the Didache says,
As regards baptism, baptize in this manner, having first given all the preceding instruction baptize in the name of the father, and of the son and of the Holy Spirit and immerse 3 times in running water.
Ignatius died in 110 AD. He was a disciple of the Apostle John and was the bishop of Antioch. He was martyred in Rome only 10 years after John died. Ignatius is as close to the source as you can get. He had several interesting quotes concerning the Trinity doctrine:
"Be deaf, therefore, when any would speak to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was descended from the family of David, born of Mary, who truly was born, truly took a body; for the Word became flesh and dwelt among us without sin"
Ignatius also wrote about Jesus’ second coming
“Look for him that is above the times, him who has not times, him who is invisible”.
He believed that only God is was timeless and in his letter to Polycarp, Ignatius stated, “Jesus is God, God incarnate.”
Ignatius also identified Jesus apart from the Father and the Holy Spirit by saying,
“In Christ Jesus our Lord, by whom and with whom be glory and power to the Father with the Holy Spirit for ever”.