The "early church fathers" are a very important witness to the faith of the early church. It is quite common for certain Christians to completely dismiss the writings of these men in deference to Scripture alone. This is a wonder since these same people scurry to the Christian Bookstore to get the latest trendy book by their favorite contemporary author. One wonders why they so quickly dismiss the thoughts of the earliest Christians but oblige themselves to the trendy thoughts of modern preachers. Could it be because they already know that these early Christians might be saying things that do not tickle their itching ears? We have available to us the theological opinions of the earliest disciples of Christ who were also appealing to the Scriptures. The value of these early Christian writings must not be under estimated. They reflect the beliefs of the blossoming Christian church. This is not to say that we must regard everything they said as the infallible truth in the same sense as we regard the veracity of the Holy Bible. Yet, it seems to make sense that if anyone's theological opinion matters, it is the opinions of the earliest Christians.
There are problems with the early writings just as there are problems with contemporary theologians and Bible commentators. Some of them are quite biased in their thinking and line of argumentation and their argumentation style is to paint a "made-to-fit" picture, just as modern commentators often do. Some of them have been significantly influenced by Greek philosophy and they use this philosophy as the basis for their thinking process. Some of them are simply more intelligent than others. Some of them dance on the edge of heresy. But the point of examining their writings is to see what they were debating about and to get a feel for what the church as a whole believed. We can look at all of these writings as a whole and get a picture of the church's beliefs concerning their perspective of God and Christ and whether or not they had any notions that resemble the doctrine of the Trinity.
Another observable problem with some early Christian writings is the human propensity to bend the truth in a kind of knee-jerk reaction against heresy. In reaction to opposing beliefs, we humans often are tempted to paint such an antithetical view of the heresy, that we resort to the extreme of "throwing out the baby with the bathwater" in order to be as "unlike" the perceived heretical belief as possible. This can be seen today among fundamentalist Christians who have the erroneous notion that truth must be an attempt to be as "unCatholic" as possible. These early Christians are no different than anyone else and were subject to these kinds of errors. Thinking people know and understand this is serious blunder and a very poor approach to truth because it allows the heresy itself to steal away bits of truth along with it when it is thrown out. The object is to get at the truth, even if it appears to be an inch away from a labelled heresy. The devils lies are subtle. Indeed, the best heresies look very much like the truth and most of the details of the heresy are indeed true, yet containing a heretical factor. So when one opposes a heresy by assuming a totally antagonist stance that opposes all the beliefs of the perceived heretic, and not just that part of the heresy which is in error, the defender of his own faith creates his own heresy in order to defeat his opponent, and also throws out truths which were indeed present in that overall heresy. And in the end, he has been duped into rejecting truth and has given up some truth to combat an opponent who assumed at least some of the truth into his heresy. As so, some unwary men have allowed the heretics to gradually consume the truth of God, bit by bit, by assuming these bits into their heresies, and having the church at large reject it all.
There are yet more problems but these are not the problems of the writers but those who followed them. We know our Bible contains some corruptions and we are not always absolutely certain which versions of a Greek manuscript text is the pure hand of the original writers. The writings of Ignatius is a critical case in point. Usually these corruptions are not significant and cause us very little concern but at other times this issue is quite critical. Yet we know the corruptions are there by comparing one manuscript to another and there may be some corruptions we do not know are there because we have nothing to compare it to. The early Christians did their best to preserve the Bible from corruption, yet corruptions occurred nevertheless, perhaps by innocent scribal copyist error, and sometimes intentionally by groups such as the Gnostics. The writings of the early church fathers were not so carefully guarded as the books in our Bibles and far more susceptible to the hands of corruption. Indeed, many copyists took great liberties with the writings of the church fathers as we can see in the wide variations in the documents that we do have and some outright manipulations of their writings. For most of the early writings of the fathers, we may only have one or two, perhaps three, of their writings. Thus it is sometimes difficult to ascertain the authenticity of any given text. Thus, we need to always keep in mind this problem in mind as well.
And problem compounds upon problem. We are English speakers and we must rely on the workmanship of translators. These are not infallible men and they are subject to error as well. The translations of these early Christian writings are not scrutinized nearly as severely as the words in the books of the Bible. One can see how easy it is for translations to vary widely just by comparing our own Bible translations which are translated with much greater caution and have been under the scrutiny of thousands upon thousands of men. The same is not true of the early fathers. These translations have not been scrutinized anywhere near as thoroughly as the Bible. Translators must try to capture the intended thought of the original author. This is not as easy as it sounds. And then there is the problem of the scope of meaning in the words of our respective languages. Sometimes translators are forced to use an English word that under translates the word of the original language because it is the best English word we have even though it falls short the constellation of ideas associated with the word of that original language. And conversely, translators must use an English word that over translates, and subsequently the original author appears to say more than he intended. And sometimes, translators must even use an English word that only captures part of the idea in the word of the original language but also contains an idea that is not in the word of the original language. Most people are not aware of these translation difficulties or the susceptibility of theological bias by translators.
These problems should not stop us from examining their beliefs. We simply cannot and should not be too dogmatic about any one statement any of these men made because of the above problems. What one needs to do is look at the whole set of information by considering the author's intent in each document, and the context of history in which documents were written, and observe developments or changes in the thinking of Christians over time in early church history, in order to get the big picture. What Clement of Rome wrote is quite another matter from what Origen of Alexandria wrote 150 years later. Each man's thought was affected by numerous factors unique to each of them. We also cannot take any given statement by any given early writer as a stand alone belief because it can so easily be misunderstood. Everything must be viewed in context, in comparison to everything else the writer said, its setting, and its intent, the influence of outside forces on the author's thinking such as Greek philosophy, or an opposition to a perceived heresy, and the distance in time it is from the apostolic tradition. And obviously, the further we get away from the first century the more opportunity error has to compound itself if it goes uncorrected. In light of these observations, we need to simply try to get a grasp of the common orthdox belief of the early church by reading between the lines. And we also need to ask if indeed "orthodoxy" remain static, steadfast and firm from the first to the fourth century, or if "orthodoxy" underwent a gradual change due to various pressures and forms of thought. The writings of these men are valuable but we must proceed with caution. And we simply would be quite naive and incredulous to presume the early church must certainly have taught what we believe in our hometown church today, and create for ourselves an unfactual imaginary history that is nothing but fantasy. And we would be even more delusional if we simply assured ourselves that we, the moderns, must be always right in our interpretation of Scripture, and they must be most certainly wrong if they should ever disagree with us, without at least entertaining the possibility that we just might indeed be the ones led astray. Some of these men were directly taught by the apostles or by men who were taught by the apostles. We don't have to agree with everything they say but we do have to take them seriously.
Post-Apostolic Period: (70 - 130 A.D.)
With the exception of Ignatius, there is absolutey no hint that early Christians regarded anyone but the Father alone as their one God. We have the letters of Ignatius of Antioch in three different versions which vary considerably. Of these versions, only the "Short Recension" is favored as the authentic version. However, all of these letters are under high suspicion of corruption and many textual critics think all these recensions have been corrupted. As such they do us little good since the specific texts in these writings which were the targets of Gnostic corruption are words which concern the identity and nature of God and Christ. And so in this first period of Christian history, we really have no solid evidence that the early Christians perceived anyone to be God except the Father alone.
The Period of Rising Philosophers: (130 A.D. to 180 A.D.)
During this period we see a marked tendency toward Platonic philosophy mixed with Scripture. We find writers like Justin Martyr and Tatian and Athenagoras whose words are steeped in philosophical thinking. It is here we first find a tendency to view Jesus as "God." Justin Martyr readily identifies Jesus as "God." However, he also identifies Jesus as the Holy Spirit and "another god" who is subject to "the Most True God" who he identifies as the Father. Tatian's though is similar since he was a student of Justin. However, Tatian is reported by early Christians to have turned to Gnosticism after Justin's death. Athenagoras focuses on Jesus as the Word and seems to understand the Word to be divine in the analogical sense that a sunbeam is "sun" but not "the sun."
It is also at this time that we first find the word "trinity" used in Christian literature. Near the end of this time period, Theophilus of Antioch uses the term to refer to God, God's Word and God's Wisdom. However, he is not using the term in the much later theological sense of three persons in one. He is using the term as any secular person would in his day to refer to a group of three things. He is using it to refer to the economic relationship between those three during creatio and has no concept of these three being "one" in any manner except functional unity. Theophilus also interprets the "us" at Genesis 1:26 to be referring to God, God's Word and God's Wisdom. And we shall see in our examination of this verse that this interpretation carries considerable weight.
Irenaeus of Lyons: (130 A.D. to 180 A.D.)
Irenaeus deserves very special consideration. He wrote a large work that is usually known today as "Against Heresies." Although he combats many false teachings in this document, he chiefly focuses on the false teachings of the Gnostics. Irenaeus is unique in this time period in that he does not dabble in philosophy as the other writers in this time period. His approach is a plain "common sense" approach and he simply appeals to the Scriptures and the traditional teachings of the Apostles.
His words are so important to us because he repeatedly refers to the rule of faith which is observed by the Christian church proper over and against the wild speculations of the Gnostics. We can discover what the early church believed, at least according to his perspective, by reading his writings.
It is quite plain from Irenaeus' arguments that he wished to identify the one true God against Gnostic notions of unknown Gods and a God higher than the Christian God and so on. Because the Gnostics had such claims, Irenaeus found it necessary to spend much effort illustrating just who is the one true God of the Christians. Not once does Irenaeus attempt to identify God as a three person being. If indeed the early Christians believed their God to be a three person being this is inexplicable since Irenaeus' main strategy was to identify the one God of the Christians against these Gnostic claims. Here we find a man who has an opportunity to insist that the apostolic tradition teaches that God is three persons in one being. But he never even implies such a concept. Rather, he focuses upon identifying the one God of the Christians as Jesus' father.
Irenaeus makes statements that otherwise sound contradictory to our modern theology. This should alert us to the liely possibility that we are misunderstanding the beliefs of the early Christians. On one hand, Irenaeus is not afraid to say that Christ is "God." But on the other hand, he repeatedly insists that the Father, and only the Father, is the one true God. These words sound contradictory and they are especially contradictory to Trinitarian doctrine.
However, it appears Irenaeus perceived God's Word to be the essence of God and in this qualitative sense Jesus was/is "God." Put another way, when Irenaeus refers to Jesus as "God" he is really saying Jesus is divine because God's Word is necessarily the essence of God himself. A sunbeam is the essence of the sun and in this way it is qualitatively "sun" stuff. However, it is not "the" sun. In the same way, it is likely this is likely Irenaeus understanding of God and his Word. While the Word is divine, the Word is not "the" God. And this is why he repeatedly insists that only the Father is the one true God. This also appears to be the only possible way to reconcile his words. Else we must conclude that Irenaeus was contradicting himself in the middle of an apologetic where he is showing others contradicting themselves, a highly unlikely situation.
By 180 A.D., we have no hint of Trinitarian doctrine in the church. Nobody mentions this doctrine anywhere. Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, and Irenaeus, all do make concerted efforts to illustrate the relationship of God, Jesus, and the Spirit. None of them remotely suggest that these three are one God.