40 of 100: Evolution of Trinity – Primarily a reaction against Modalism

The Trinity evolution – A reaction against Modalism

In this post try to trace the evolution of Trinity before it was formalized under Constantine. The early church father Tertullian (c. 155-230), who wrote in Latin, is believed to have first used the term trinity to describe the God of the Bible.

Birth of Modalism

Praxeas (end of the 2nd century/beginning of the 3rd century) was a Monarchian from Asia Minor. He believed in the unity of the Godhead and vehemently disagreed with any attempt at division of the personalities or personages of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Christian Church.

{He was opposed by Tertullian in his tract, Against Praxeas (Adversus Praxean), and was influential in preventing the Roman Church from granting recognition to the New Prophecy. See Tertullian’s views below}


Sabellius (AD 215) taught that God was single and indivisible, with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being three modes or manifestations of one divine Person. A Sabellian modalist would say that the One God successively revealed Himself to man throughout time as the Father in Creation; the Son in Redemption; and the Spirit in Sanctification and Regeneration.

{The Teachings of Sabellius were most vigorously opposed by Tertullian in North Africa and Hippolytus in Rome, who both proposed an hierarchical trinity of subordinate persons.}


Modalism (3rd century) teaches that the Heavenly Father, Resurrected Son and Holy Spirit identified by the Trinity Doctrine are different modes or aspects of the One God, as perceived by the believer, rather than three coeternal persons within the Godhead.


Jesus was taught second to God around this time by others

Justin Martyr (100 – 165 AD)  In his First Apology he describes God as being in first place, Christ in second, and the Spirit in third:

We will prove that we worship him reasonably; for we have learned that he is the Son of the true God himself, that he holds a second place, and the Spirit of prophecy a third. For this they accuse us of madness, saying that we attribute to a crucified man a place second to the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of all things; but they are ignorant of the mystery which lies therein. —First Apology 13:5–6[21]


Tertullian (160 – 225 AD) was a forerunner of the Nicene doctrine, approaching the subject from the standpoint of the Logos doctrine, though he did not state the immanent Trinity. His use of trinitas (Latin: ‘Threeness’) emphasised the manifold character of God. As regards the question whether the Son was coeternal with the Father, many believe that Tertullian did not teach that. As regards the subjects of subordination of the Son to the Father, the New Catholic Encyclopedia has commented: “In not a few areas of theology, Tertullian’s views are, of course, completely unacceptable. Thus, for example, his teaching on the Trinity reveals a subordination of Son to Father that in the later crass form of Arianism the Church rejected as heretical.

He is perhaps most famous for being the oldest extant Latin writer to use the termTrinity (Latin: Trinitas)


Origen (AD 186-255),

For Origen, God was not Yahweh but the First Principle, and Christ, the Logos, was subordinate to him


The God and Father, who holds the universe together, is superior to every being that exists, for he imparts to each one from his own existence that which each one is; the Son, being less than the Father, is superior to rational creatures alone (for he is second to the Father); the Holy Spirit is still less, and dwells within the saints alone. So that in this way the power of the Father is greater than that of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and that of the Son is more than that of the Holy Spirit... (Origen, First, 33-4 [I.3])


Early Trinity

Pope Dionysius (AD 262)

According to Athanasius of Alexandria, in the mid-3rd century Pope Dionysius wrote a letter to Dionysius of Alexandria criticizing Sabellius‘s views on the relations between the Son and the Father, as well as some who attempted to refute Sabellius’s views. He quotes parts of Dionysius’ letter in On the decrees of the Council of Nicaea .[40] In this letter it is clear that Dionysius used the word Trinity (Greek Trias) to explicate the relations between Father, Son and Holy Spirit:

Next, I may reasonably turn to those who divide and cut to pieces and destroy that most sacred doctrine of the Church of God, the Divine Monarchy, making it as it were three powers and partive subsistences and godheads. I am told that some among you who are catechists and teachers of the Divine Word, take the lead in this tenet, who are diametrically opposed, so to speak, to Sabellius’ opininons; for he blasphemously says that the Son is the Father, and Father the Son, but they in some sort preach three Gods, as dividing the sacred Unity into three subsistences foreign to each other and utterly separate. For it must be that with the God of the Universe, the Divine Word is united, and the Holy Ghost must repose and habitate in God; thus in one as in a summit, I mean the God of the Universe, must the Divine Trinity be gathered up and brought together….Neither, then, may we divide into three godheads the wonderful and divine Unity…Rather, we must believe in God, the Father Almighty; and in Christ Jesus, his Son; and in the Holy Spirit; and that the Word is united to the God of the universe. ‘For,’ he says, ‘The Father and I are one,’ and ‘I am in the Father, and the Father in me’. For thus both the Divine Trinity and the holy preaching of the Monarchy will be preserved. —’De decretis Nic. syn.26[41]


Adoptionism the earliest Christology

Ebionites (1st C+), is a term referring to a Jewish Christian movement that existed during the early centuries of the Christian Era.

Christology of Ebionite groups – while all Ebionites denied Christ’s pre-existence there was a sub-group which did not deny the virgin birth


Theodotus of Byzantium (late 2nd century)

was an early Christian writer from Byzantium, one of several named Theodotus whose writings were condemned as heresy in the early church.

Theodotus claimed that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit as a non-divine man, and though later “adopted” by God upon baptism (that is to say, he became the Christ), was not himself God until after his resurrection.


The Shepherd of Hermas (2nd C)

is a Christian literary work of the 2nd century, considered a valuable book by many Christians, and considered canonical scripture by some of the early Church fathers such as Irenaeus

In parable 5, the author mentions a Son of God, as a virtuous man filled with a Holy “pre-existent spirit” and adopted as the Son.[5]  (the view that Jesus Christ was at least initially, only a mortal man).

[Adoptionism, sometimes called dynamic monarchianism, is nontrinitarian heretical theological teaching that Jesus was adopted as God’s Son either at hisbaptism, his resurrection, or his ascension. ]




It seems Trinity evolved as a reaction against a more Trinitied form of Trinatarinsim – Modalism.

Prior to that the church believed that the Father was above the son. Prior to that (1st Century) the Jewish teachers such as Paul had no doubts on the relationship of the Father and the spirit as used in old testament scriptures and NEW belief in Jesus.

Please note the response of Tertullian who at the time only believed in  hierarchical trinity of subordinate persons v/s Athanasius response at his time of Niceae. The true belief in the ONE God was turned to belief in THREE GODs during the 200s.

Earliest writers who reacted against Modalists coined the word ‘Trinity’ to emphasize the distinctness between the Father and the Son including the subordination of the son to the Father. Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Origen all taught that Jesus was second to God!

It is important to note that Modalism existed before Trinity.

Later church leaders developed the newly coined ‘Trinity’ further and finally arrived at the formalized definition at Nicaea as a reaction against Arianism and others under the good hand of Constantine.

However, the Bible does NOT teach or use the word Trinity, because there is no Triune God!

[Hebrews 1:5 states that God said, “You are my son. Today I have begotten you,” a phrase that shows adoptionist tendencies. It is also almost a direct quote from Psalm 2:7. – See 100 Reasons why the Bible does not use the word Trinity: Reason 21 of 100 [‘You are my Son, TODAY I have begotten you.’ – Which Day is Today? for more details]

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