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Pro-Nicene Trinitarianism

Where to Start

It is difficult to talk about a “consensus” among patristic theologians when discussing the Trinity, not because they did not agree on the fundamentals of the doctrine of the Trinity, but because they often used varying terms, rhetorical arguments, and biblical passages to make their points. As John Behr has rightly said, we should think of patristic theology as a symphony of voices that are diverse yet create a unified sound. We have to remember that orthodox Trinitarianism is not merely a few theological buzzwords or even the bare affirmation of creedal phrases, but is rather a type of grammar or logic built on swaths of biblical texts, threads, and deductions. We have to remember that orthodox Trinitarianism is not merely a few theological buzzwords or even the bare affirmation of creedal phrases, but is rather a type of grammar or logic built on swaths of biblical texts, threads, and… Click To Tweet

That said, Lewis Ayres has helpfully used the term “pro-Nicene” to talk about this general symphony that emerged in defense of the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) as the doctrine of the Trinity was more fully codified at the Council of Constantinople (AD 381). Ayres lays out three basic criteria for pro-Nicene Trinitarianism:

  1. a clear version of the person and nature distinction, entailing the principle that whatever is predicated of the divine nature is predicated of the three persons equally and understood to be one (this distinction may or may not be articulated via a consistent terminology); 2. clear expression that the eternal generation of the Son occurs within the unitary and incomprehensible divine nature; 3. clear expression of the doctrine that the persons work inseparably.[i]

Put another way, they all agreed that God is one substance in three persons; that the Son is eternally generated/begotten but no less God; and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have a unified will and action, never working apart from one another nor with any hint of potential disagreement.

While books upon books have been written about pro-Nicene Trinitarianism,[ii] here is a brief survey of a few major figures and their contributions to what is now orthodox Trinitarian theology. My hope is that this overview will encourage you to follow the primary sources and read them for yourself.

Athanasius of Alexandria

Though his predecessor, Alexander of Alexandria, was a stalwart in Nicaea’s condemnation of Arius’s teaching that the Son was created, Athanasius was perhaps the most widely influential figure in defending Nicaea over the following half-century. In particular, Athanasius made two major contributions.

First, he centered the Trinitarian discussion around the term homoousios, which asserted that the Father and Son (and Holy Spirit) share the same substance or essence; that is, they are all equally and fully divine with no gradation of nature, authority, power, etc. This term was particularly useful for Athanasius because Arius and Eusebius (another early heretic) refused to use it.[iii] Second, Athanasius used the term “Arian” in an apologetic and polemical way against various opponents to help garner support for the Nicene cause. While many of his opponents did not like being called “Arians” because they were not disciples of Arius and in some cases had never even read Arius’s work, Athanasius—fairly or unfairly, depending on who you ask—used the term to signal to others that his opponents’ heresy was similar, and therefore opposed to Nicaea.

One of my favorite quotes from Athanasius is this simple statement about the Father and Son:

The Godhead of the Son is the Father’s. It is indivisible. Thus there is one God and none other but he. So, since they are one, and the Godhead itself one, the same things are said of the Son, which are said of the Father, except his being said to be the Father.[iv]

For a good introduction to Athanasius’s work, I recommend starting with On the Incarnation and Letters to Serapion on the Holy Spirit.

The Cappadocians

Two brothers, Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, and their colleague Gregory of Nazianzus are collectively known as the Cappadocian Fathers because they all lived and ministered in the Cappadocia area, near modern-day Turkey. These three theologians made significant contributions to the development and codification of orthodox Trinitarianism. Let us briefly survey each of their contributions to pro-Nicene theology.

One of Basil’s many contributions to Trinitarian theology was his insistence upon the divinity of the Holy Spirit and his argument that the Godhead is not arranged in a hierarchy or as separate beings, but rather the three persons were equally divine and therefore worthy of worship. In particular, he often attacked those who he accused of parsing words and sentences in Scripture to make it say what it did not actually say. For Basil, those who denied the divinity of the Son and Holy Spirit by conflating “different expressions” (misusing biblical language) of the Trinitarian persons with “difference in nature” are “malevolently opposed to true religion.”[v] For a good introduction to Basil’s work, I recommend On the Holy Spirit.

Gregory of Nyssa oftentimes discussed the sharing of “power” (dunamis) among the persons instead of “shared essence” (homoousios) as we saw in Athanasius, but he was using the same logic. In one place, Gregory asserts:

[T]he Son is the Father’s power (1 Cor 1.24). Those therefore who are saved through the Son are saved by the Father’s Power. . . Whether you look at the whole world, or at the parts of the world which constitute the whole, all these are the Father’s works, produced by his Power, and thus the scripture is true in both ways, when it says both that the Father makes all things, and that without the Son no existing thing comes to be; for the activity of the Power points back to him whose Power he is. Since therefore the Son is the Father’s power, all the works of the Son are the works of the Power.[vi]

Ultimately, Gregory notes that the Father and Son are inseparable and equal in “being” because their power is shared, shown clearly through their works in creation. Further, the “power” of the Holy Spirit completes and perfects this work.[vii] Indeed, his explanations provide perhaps the most strident version of inseparable operations among the pro-Nicenes. For a good introduction to Gregory of Nyssa’s work, I recommend On Not Three Gods or Letter 38.[viii] Ultimately, Gregory notes that the Father and Son are inseparable and equal in “being” because their power is shared, shown clearly through their works in creation. Click To Tweet

Finally, Gregory of Nazianzus, using a litany of titles and references from Scripture (including “Word,” “he who is in the beginning,” “truth,” “life,” “light,” “Lord,” “Almighty”), clarified the pro-Nicene understanding of Jesus as the “only-begotten Son”:

Plainly these, and all the expressions synonymous with these, refer to the Son. None of them is a later acquisition, none became attached at a later stage to the Son or to the Spirit any more than to the Father, for perfection does not result from additions. It was never the case that he was without his Word, that he was not Father, that he was not true, or that he was without wisdom and power, or that he lacked life, splendor, or goodness.[ix]

Further, Gregory of Nazianzus discussed shared substance and generation of the Holy Spirit in relation to the Father and Son, namely using the word “divinity” for the Holy Spirit and as the first to refer to the Holy Spirit’s “procession.” For example, in Oration 25, he says, “the special characteristic of the Father is his ingenerateness, of the Son his generation, and of the Holy Spirit his procession.”[x] For a good introduction to Gregory of Nazianzus’s work, I recommend his Five Theological Orations.

While we unfortunately do not have space to discuss Augustine of Hippo, Hilary of Poitiers, Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor, and others who contributed to early Trinitarian reflection, my hope is that this survey will give you some bearings and encourage you to study further the great Trinitarian resources of the patristic era.



[i] Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (Oxford: OUP, 2004), 239.

[ii] I recommend in particular Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy; John Behr, The Nicene Faith parts 1-2 (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004); Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011); Stephen R. Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012.

[iii] Athanasius, De Decretis 19-20.

[iv] Athanasius, Apologia Contra Arianos 3.4.

[v] Basil, De Spiritu Sancto 2.4.

[vi] Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium 3.4.33-35.

[vii] Gregory of Nyssa, Ad Ablabium. 3.1.50.

[viii] Letter 38 was once attributed to Basil, but scholars overwhelmingly now agree that this letter belongs to Gregory of Nyssa.

[ix] Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 29.17.

[x] Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 25:16.

Brandon D. Smith

Brandon D. Smith (PhD, Ridley College), is Assistant Professor of Theology & New Testament at Cedarville University, Editorial Director for the Center for Baptist Renewal, and host of the Church Grammar podcast. He is author of They Spoke of Me: How Jesus Unlocks the Old Testament and the host of The Church Grammar Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @brandon_d_smith.
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