Trinity and Incarnation among the Second Century Apologists

Trinity and Incarnation among the Second Century Apologists May 22, 2019

The road from Nazareth (the historical Jesus) to Nicaea (affirmation of a fully divine Son) is full of express lanes, roadblocks, detours, one-way streets, roundabouts, protests, and even the odd Gnostic mardi gras parade.

For instance, in the writings of Justin, you have a strong emphasis on Jesus as the Logos, the eternal word of God, but he otherwise treats the Spirit as merely the Spirit of prophecy and he might even conflate the Son and the Spirit in places. Irenaeus is more interested in the economic Trinity than in a shared divine nature of the Son and Spirit with the Father. Origen seems to think that the Logos is 99.9% God.

Even so, among other second century apologists, the doctrine of the incarnation and Trinity begins to crystallize. In the Epistle to Diognetus (ca. 150-200 AD) we are given a short description about the nature of the Son inferred from the sending of the Son. He was not sent by the Father in tyranny and terror, rather the author says, the Son was sent “as a king sending a son who is also a king, he sent him as God, he sent him as a human to humans.”[1] This short and succinct statement expresses what in later technical terminology would be called consubstantiality, the doctrine that the Son possesses everything that is true of divinity and everything that is true of humanity, in other words, vere homo et vere deus (“truly human and truly God”). Even more elaborate, although somewhat imprecise in places, is the statement of Athenagoras of Athens (ca. 177 AD), harnessing the metaphors of mind-idea and sun-light to explain the Father-Son and Father-Spirit relationships:

The Son of God is the Logos of the Father, in idea and in operation, oriented towards him, for all things came into existence through him. The Father and the Son share one being, the Son’s being is in the Father and the Father’s being is in the Son, forming a unity in a spirit of power. The Son of God is the [eternal] understanding and reason of the Father. .… He is the first begotten of the Father, not in the sense of having been ordinarily born (for since the beginning, God, who is the eternal mind, has always had the Logos within himself, his eternal rational existence), but he came forth as the idea and energizing power of all material things, which lay like a nature unencumbered by any attributes, upon an inactive earth, the lesser atoms being mixed up with the lighter. The Spirit of prophecy concurs with our remarks. “The Lord,” it says, “made me, the beginning of his ways for his works” [Prov 8:22].The Holy Spirit himself, who operates in the prophets, we say is an effusion of God, flowing forth from him, and deflecting back again to him, like a beam of sunlight.[2]

[1] Ep. Diogn. 7.4 (trans. M.F. Bird).

[2] Athenagoras, Plea 10 (trans. M.F. Bird).

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