Trinity in the Church

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Bonaventure was born in 1217 at Bagnoregio in Latium. He was one of the most influential medieval theologians and philosophers. He spent much of his life connected with the University of Paris, where he studied theology. He lectured on the Bible at the university and wrote a commentary on the sentences of Peter the Lombard. After receiving the degree of Doctor of Theology, he joined the Franciscan order. Augustine and Francis were extensively influenced by Bonaventure’s theology, which was deeply spiritual.

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He became the seventh minister of the order after Francis of Assisi in 1257. Bonaventure wrote a book called Disputed Questions on the Mystery of the Trinity while he was in Paris. This book delves into the issues involved with the Trinitarian doctrine. Later, he wrote a book known as The Journey of the Mind to God or Itinerarium. In this work, he presents six steps for knowing God and coming into union with Him. The theological journey begins with consideration of the beauty and order of God’s creation. In his final steps, Bonaventure focused on the contemplation of the goodness of pure being. For Bonaventure, the highest level the human mind can reach is to become absorbed in the communication between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. His spiritual goal, in these final steps, is centered around the triune reality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In that book, the third and fourth steps focus on the human soul. Bonaventure follows the guidance of Augustine, who in his book on the Trinity, suggests that to know God, we, as humans, have to examine the image of God within ourselves. Like Augustine, Bonaventure also proposed the idea of the human image as a triune image. Bonaventure argued that the human soul consists of three components, namely memory, intellect, and will, all within a single soul. These three aspects correspond to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the singular entity of God. Bonaventure borrowed this concept from Augustine. He added that the intellect and will originate from memory, in the same manner that the Son and the Holy Spirit originate from the Father. As wisdom is gained through remembered events, the Son, who is the Logos or Word, proceeds from the Father as His wisdom. Furthermore, Bonaventure makes a parallel comparison of the will arising from both the memory and intellect, and the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son. Like Augustine, Bonaventure perceives the procession of the Son and Spirit as integral to the doctrine of the Trinity.

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas was born around 1225 in Roccasecca, Italy. He was the father of the Thomistic school of theology. As one of the most influential medieval thinkers of Scholasticism, he is both a philosopher and a theologian. Thomas Aquinas was profoundly influenced by Augustine’s discussions of the Trinitarian elements found in human beings: existence, life, and reason; memory, intellect, and will. He was also influenced by Aristotle and the Neo-Platonism of Pseudo-Dionysius. His most systematic discussion on the issue of the imago dei occurs in the first part of Summa Theologiae, entitled “The End or Term of the Production of Man.” Every article of the question refers to the imago dei. Aquinas’s focus on the intellectual soul as the locus of the image of God is so strong that he says the angels are more in the image of God than we are. “Thus, the image of God is more perfect in the angels than in man, because their intellectual nature is more perfect,” Aquinas states. In his discussion of the Trinity, he acknowledges that the doctrine is not known by natural reason but only by faith. “It is impossible to attain to the knowledge of the Trinity by natural reason,” he confesses. He admits that our knowledge of God’s essence is extremely limited and that we only understand the essence of the soul by knowing its powers, that we comprehend the powers by understanding the habits of first principles, and that we understand these habits by recognizing the acts. We only understand the Trinity because Jesus revealed this to us. He decided that God alone is all-knowing. Aquinas says that we can discuss what we know about God, but much of His true nature remains a mystery to us.

Reformation Era

The Trinity doctrine in the Reformation era was developed and understood by Sola Scriptura, meaning “by Bible, and Bible alone”. However, the Roman Catholics rejected the sole authority of Scripture. Instead, they maintained the traditional dogma of the Trinity as developed by Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, and others. Unfortunately, most of them compromised and adopted the philosophical foundation of the medieval period. Only a few considered that this foundational belief was largely drawn from Greek philosophy. They were predetermined in their thinking and therefore interpreted Scripture accordingly. Here, Sola Scriptura did not mean that they totally rejected all other sources of authority. Rather, it stood for the subordination of all human authorities like emperors, councils, popes, and traditions. Scripture was the supreme authority.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben. He taught theology at the new University of Wittenberg in 1508. He was interested in practical theology. Luther found evidence for the Trinity in Genesis 1. First, there is the grammar of Genesis 1: “In the beginning, Elohim (plural) Bara (singular), the heavens and the earth,” where the three persons together create as one. Elohim is consistently construed as a Trinitarian referent “Let us make.” Luther identifies that whenever in the Old Testament one finds God speaking about God, as if there were two persons, one may assume that the three persons of the Godhead are in view. Additionally, whenever the Hebrew Scriptures speak of the two persons of the Father and Son, the Holy Spirit is necessarily present, for the Spirit speaks those words through the prophets. Luther affirmed the Augustinian insight that the external works (or works to the outside) of the Trinity are indivisible, while the internal works or activities admit and even necessitate distinctions. The Holy Trinity is one God, wherein the inseparable divine essence or substance refers to the total Trinity and majesty of God, which is shared commonly by all three persons. Luther spends more time rebutting subordinations and he often seems to prefer Gospel arguments to specific exegetical consideration. Luther anticipates the twenty and twenty-first century tendencies to begin with the historical man, Jesus of Nazareth, as depicted in the Gospels. The Son is revealed in humanity, for the Son alone became man. He alone was conceived by the Holy Spirit, was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered, and died for us, as our Creed informs us. However, it is also correct to say that God died for us, for the Son is God, and there is no other God but more persons in the same Godhead. Luther’s three most striking candidates are the Speaker, the Spoken Word, and the Listener, the Father as the one who wants to comfort, the Son who prays for the comforter, and the Spirit who is the comfort.

John Calvin

John Calvin was born in 1509, at Noyon, in Picardy. He published his first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion when he was 26 in Basel, and continued to revise and enlarge it throughout his life. He was extraordinary in his learning and knew the ancient fathers like no one else in his century. He made commentaries that almost covered most of the books in the Bible. He was also known as the theologian who made the greatest contribution to laying the solid foundation of the doctrine of the Trinity. His doctrine of the Trinity paved the way for the most biblical understanding of God. Calvin’s doctrine of the Trinity did not come from a theological emptiness, rather from the theological controversies in the historical contexts in which he lived. Peter Caroli accused Calvin of Arianism. The accusation of Arianism against Calvin is ascribed to the inadequacies of the first edition of the “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” In May 1537, Caroli brought the charge of Arianism against Farel and Calvin at a synod in Lausanne because they avoided the metaphysical terms Trinity and Person in the Confession.

When Caroli asked Calvin to sign the Athanasian Creed with its damning clauses, Calvin refused to sign it because he thought that doing so would be unjust and uncharitable. Calvin couldn’t help but respond to the accusation. Nonetheless, he had no intention of changing his doctrine of the Trinity. Besides, he followed in the footsteps of Luther when it came to defending traditional Trinitarian terminology. In his 1536 edition, Calvin briefly explained the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. He supported the unity of God by mentioning “one baptism” and “one faith” in Ephesians 4:5. At the same time, he stressed that baptism should be administered in the name of the three Persons of the Trinity, and that the three Persons were the object of the faith. Calvin emphasized the importance of the divinity of Christ for the faith, and of the divinity of the Holy Spirit for communication with God the Creator and God the Redeemer. For Calvin, the question “What is God (Quid sit Deus)?” was a very important question. This is because the knowledge of God was seriously distorted in the medieval age. This distortion led to the distortion of worship, which made Calvin deeply examine the Bible. The God he found in the Bible is the triune God.

In the first twelve chapters of the 1559 final edition of the book ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion, he contrasts the biblical God with false gods. He begins to deal with the doctrine of the Trinity in Chapter 13. From Chapter 14 to Chapter 18, based on the doctrine of the Trinity, he deals with creation and providence. In the first twelve chapters, he develops Christian epistemology over the doctrine of God and subsequently presents the doctrine of the Trinity again. After presenting the doctrine of the Trinity, he unravels the two most important works that God does: creation and providence. According to Calvin, no one can obtain pure knowledge of self without contemplating the face of God. Such contemplation leads believers to the experience of the Trinitarian God. Calvin asserts that God reveals Himself as the Triune God. That is, when we meet the solitary God, we immediately encounter the divine three, and vice versa. He begins to mention the person of the Holy Spirit along with the person of the Son. Subsequently, Calvin points out a crucial factor. Though each person of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is distinguishable, the Son and the Spirit are one God with the Father. This distinction does not indicate essence but interrelation among the three Persons. He contends that when we confess belief in one God, a single, simple essence is understood under the name of God, while simultaneously comprehending three persons within that essence. Calvin furthers that Christ has been called the Son of God not only because He was the eternally begotten Word, but also because He adopted the person and office of the Mediator. He proclaims that the divine nature is common to all three persons. We should not separate the persons from the essence, rather distinguish among them while they remain within the essence, indicating that the three persons of the Godhead are consubstantial.


The New Testament books are renowned as the earliest Christian writings available to us today. In these texts, a father, a son, and a holy spirit are distinctly present. According to Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (NKJV). Each of these three beings was central to early Christian worship and belief. Essentially, the Christian doctrine of God arises from early Judaism. Christianity sprouted and developed from the first-century Jewish world, rooted deeply in monotheism. Jews held a firm belief in one and only God, distinguishing them from all other religious groups.

The Shema, a prayer from Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel the Lord, our God, the Lord is one,” was universally practised in Judaism by the first century A.D. The Shema represents the monotheistic understanding central to the Jewish faith. Judaism encompassed a variety of thought groups, including Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and other groups. Despite their differences, all branches held this belief in common. Christianity also holds the Hebrew Scriptures as authoritative and shares the strong belief in monotheism.

The Greco-Roman religious world abounded with numerous gods. As the Roman Empire expanded, more peoples and more gods joined the religious mix. The average city in the Roman Empire represented not only a diverse ethnic and national population but also a broad array of pagan deities and temples. However, several philosophers emerged with a strong reaction against such an extreme abundance of gods. These Greco-Roman philosophers sparked a surge in monotheism that recognized one ultimate God who transcended not only the visible world but also any pagan gods believed to interact with it. The notion in Greek philosophical thought of a single God above all others dates back to at least the fourth century B.C.

The pre-Christian era, a period before the spread of Christianity also known as “Before Christ” (B.C), was marked by the worship or belief in multiple deities (polytheism). Plato, a follower of Socrates, is celebrated for his significant work, Timaeus, in which he postulated that one transcendent God made the world through a demiurge. Aristotle, another notable philosopher and scientist of the ancient world and student of Plato, proposed the idea of a God outside the world; he is the final cause of all motions in nature and the prime mover of the universe.

Zeno of Citium, a Greek philosopher, and the founder of the Stoic school, presented the transcendent being as the “one,” maintaining the reverence of ancient literature in the belief in one God. Philo of Alexandria, an important figure immersed in both Greek and Jewish cultures, was instrumental in the development of the philosophical and theological foundation of Christianity. He portrayed God’s interactions with the physical or sense-perceptible world as being carried out by agents like Justice, Sophia, and the Logos.

The Apostolic Fathers were personally known to some of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul. They are the first Christian theologians, who lived in the 1st and 2nd century AD. Their writings are popular in early Christianity but not included in the canon of the New Testament. Theophilus of Antioch wrote to his friend, who was attracted to the monotheistic view. In his second book, fifteenth chapter, he employed the word “Trinity.” It was not intended to represent a three-person Godhead, but rather to describe God and two agents, which are “Logos” and “Sophia”. He referred to these two terms as the two hands of God. “Logos” is to appear and act in the physical world, and “Sophia” is wisdom. Theophilus referred to Jesus as an agent of God, a lesser being, and he was not an early representative of Trinitarian theology.

Justin Martyr came to Christianity with preconceived ideas. For Justin, Logos is a “Power” and Justin concludes in the Old Testament where God appears as the Son (Logos). He explains that Logos is like light from the sun, and Jesus can be God without being the Father. Clement of Rome, a disciple of Apostle Peter, wrote a letter to Corinth in 96 AD, stating “Do we not have one God, one Christ, and one Spirit of Grace which was poured out on us?” He believed in the Trinity and said, “For as God lives, and as the Lord Jesus Christ lives, and the Holy Spirit…” Irenaeus of Lyon uses the term Logos as the Son of God interchangeably, and he distinguishes rigidly the conception of generation. Though the Son is begotten, generated by the Father, He is still like the Father, without beginning and eternal, and sometimes He subordinates the Son to the Father. Tertullian defended the traditional doctrine of the Trinity and was not originating it. The Logos of the doctrine of Tertullian subordinated the Son to the Father and says the Father is the whole divine substance while the Son is a part of it. He illustrates it as sun and beam, or a fountain and a stream. Origen of Alexandria presents the union, using the word “Homoousia” (consubstantial or one and the same essence). He indicates that the Father and Son are two persons and they differ from each other in “Hypostases”. For Origen, the whole Trinity is involved in the work of creation, in the same way, it is involved in the work of salvation.

The early medieval period, also known as the early Middle Ages, covers the history of Christianity from the fall of Western Rome to the fall of Constantinople. In this period, Arius proposed a theological doctrine known as Arianism, asserting that Christ was created. He bolstered his belief by citing the crucifixion, where Jesus said ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Mark 15:34). He argued that Christ was distinct and inferior to the Father, and finite. The first ecumenical council of the Christian church met in ancient Nicaea in 325 A.D. to address the problem of Arianism. During this Council of Nicaea, Athanasius argued that Jesus Christ is eternal, just as the Father is. This council witnessed a dispute between Trinitarians and monarchians; 300 bishops convened for its deliberation. This council condemned Arius and his teaching.

The Council of Constantinople was established to reconcile a church that remained divided over the issue of Christ’s nature and his relationship with the Father, and it sought to reaffirm the existing doctrine. The Holy Spirit’s supremacy and equality to the Father and the Son is one specific area where the doctrine had evolved.

Basil of Caesarea defended the doctrine of the Trinity and the incarnation against opposing views, particularly the Arian heresy and Semi-Arian heresy which both attacked the doctrine of the Trinity and Christ’s deity. Arianism contends that Jesus Christ is not one with the Father, but subordinate to Him, having been created at a specific point in time. Semi-Arianism, on the other hand, purports that Jesus is of a “like” essence to God the Father but not equal to Him. Both of these theories contradict scripture. Basil maintained the oneness and monarchy of God the Father without subordination of the Son. His Trinitarian theology of one essence, one God, and one community has become the standard for the Eastern Orthodox understanding of the Holy Trinity. Various branches of Arian Christians continued to exist in small groups throughout medieval period.

After the Council of Constantinople, the main focus of Christian theology shifted towards characterizing Jesus Christ. Augustine of Hippo accepted the Trinitarian formula stipulated at the council. Bonaventure argued that the human soul has three components: memory, intellect, and will, all housed within a singular soul. He drew parallels between these three aspects and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of the single God entity, borrowing this idea from Augustine. Thomas Aquinas emphasized that the doctrine of the Trinity is understood not by natural reason, but only by faith. He also posited that our knowledge of God allows us to discuss him, but God still remains, to some extent, a mystery to us.

In the Reformation era, the Roman Catholic Church rejected the sole authority of scripture and maintained the traditional dogma of the Trinity as developed by Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, and others. In the Reformation period, Martin Luther was an important theologian. He found evidence for the Trinity in Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning Elohim (plural) and Bara (singular) the heavens and the earth.” For Luther, the three most striking candidates are the speaker, the spoken word, and the listener. He saw the Father as the one who comforts, the Son who prays for the Comforter, and the Holy Spirit who is the comfort. John Calvin’s doctrine of the Trinity paved the way for the most biblical understanding of God. His doctrine came from the theological controversies in the historical contexts in which they lived. He supported the unity of God by mentioning “one baptism” and “one faith” and at the same time, he stressed that baptism should be administered in the name of the three persons of the Trinity. Calvin emphasized the importance of Christ’s divinity for faith, and the divinity of the Holy Spirit for communication with God the Creator and God the Redeemer. He stated that the divine nature is common to all three persons; we should not separate the person from the essence. However, we should distinguish among the persons while they remain within the essence, and the three persons of the Godhead are consubstantial.

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Trinity in the Church. (2019, Oct 06). Retrieved from