The Gloria Patri, also known as the Lesser Doxology, which begins “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit” once began “Glory be to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit”. That did not change until after the Ecumenical Councils (Nicaea, 325, and Constantinopolis, 381) in the fourth century.
The original is not “invalid”, but the newer was preferred as it is more explicitly supportive of the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity as defined in the Ecumenical Councils of the fourth century at Nicaea in 325 and in Constantinopolis in 381, another example of Christian retcon contributing toward that “pious fraud” that the teaching of the Catholic Church (the whole shebang, Roman, Eastern, Anglican, Old Catholic) is now as it always has been, forever and ever, world without end, unto ages of ages, eternal and unchanging.
Zoroastrian antecedents to the Holy Trinity
The religion of Zarathustra, Mazdayasna, not only gave to the Israelites in Samerina, Yehud, Egypt, and the Diaspora monotheism and dialectical monism, it also provided a framework and foundation for the doctrine of the Holy Trinity of the Chrestians/Christians, in all its variants.
In the earliest Gathas, the oldest scriptures of the Mazdayasna religion (aka Zoroastrianism), the ones written by Zarathustra himself, Ahura Mazda appears as a unitary deity from whom proceed both spenta mainyu (bounteous spirit or inclination) and angra maniyu (destructive spirit or inclination). That paradigm did not long outlast its originator.
Sometime, probably not long, after Zarathustra died, Ahura Mazda formed a trinity with two other deities, Ahura Berezant, and Ahura Mithra. Berezant (sometimes equated with Varuna) was identified with water, while Mithra was identified with fire, the two elements of Mazdayasna necessary for ritual purification. The acts of one of the ahuras were considered acts of all three.
With the accession of Atraxerses II to the throne of Iranshahr (‘realm of the Aryans’) in 404 BCE, Berezant was replaced in the ahuric trinity by Anahita.
During the Sassanid period (224-642 CE), the form of Mazdayasna known as Zurvanism attempted to correct the sharp dualism which had crept into the religion juxtaposing Ahura Mazda against Angra Mainyu, now no longer merely an “inclination” of the first but his equal and rival.
After the fall of the Sassanids to the Arab armies, Mithra and Anahita also downgraded to the status of yazatas, like Berezant before them, and Mazdayasna’s deity returned to its original unitary form, but the dualism between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu crept back in.
Since the nineteenth century, the theology of Mazdayasna has returned to nearly its origins, with Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu as contrasting spirits extending from Ahura Mazda.
Although the Hellenistic world contained within the borders of its mystical thought several triads of deities, none of these were a Trinity in the sense later adopted by the Catholic Church. The closest examples would be beyond the borders of that cultural region. In the east, some versions of the Trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva) have the same oikonomia (that term used here in the same sense as that of Tertullian) as the Christian Trinity. In the west some versions of the Mor Righean and of Brigit among the Irish are the only ones that truly correspond.
In first century Israelite mystical and philosophical thought, the Memra (Word) and Hokhma (Wisdom) are both emanations from God. In some traditions, they are two faces of the same thing, in others they are separate. Jewish mystics often equate Memra to Binah (Understanding, or Reason) and Hokhma to the Shekhinah (Presence). The Memra is the creative agency of God, while the Shekhinah is the immanence in the universe of the transcendant God. The Shekhinah is also known as the Ruach ha-Kodesh (Holy Spirit).
Wisdom of Solomon 9:1-2, late 1st century BCE
This work, part of the abundant wisdom literature that mushroomed among Hellenistic Jews along with apocalyptic literature such as Daniel and 1 Enoch, has been thought by many to have been written by Philo, but that was probably not the case.
‘O God of my fathers and Lord of mercy, who hast made all things by thy Logos (Word), and by thy Sophia (Wisdom) hast formed man to have dominion over the creatures thou hast made…’
The best interpretation of these verses, which is the beginning of a lengthy prayer, is that the Logos is the agency by which God created the cosmos while the Sophia is the agency by which God created humanity.
Julius Philo Judaeus, turn of the era
The notable Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria adapted the Platonic-Stoic concept of the Logos to Jewish mysticism, equating the Logos with the Memra, and therefore implicitly to Binah, which is fitting since Logos in Greek means both ‘Word’ and ‘Reason’.
In other writings, Philo equated the Holy Spirit with the Hellenistic concept of Sophia (‘Wisdom’) and therefore with Hokhma. Philo conceptualized these two agencies as emanations of the One True God rather than separate independent entities.
That was the beginning of Philo’s attempt to harmonize and synchronize Israelite religious philosophy with Platonism, Stoicism, and other Hellenistic philosophy. One of Platonism’s central cosmological themes was that of the Logos as a medium between The One and Creation.
To find the origins of the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity, we have to go back to the earliest centuries of the Church, to another faith which spun off the Judaic trunk in the same milieu which produced Christianity.
Valentinus’ On the Three Natures, early 2nd century
The Gnostic sect progenitor Valentinus first defined God in the formula of three hypostases and three persons sharing a single essence and coined the designations “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” and in this work, according to Marcellus of Ancyra in his On the Holy Church in the early 4th century, who claimed he borrowed the ideas from the writings of Hermes Trismegistos and Plato. In the latter's philosophy, the Three Hypostases were The One, the Divine Mind, and the Logos-Soul.
Gospel of the Hebrews, mid 2nd century
Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Didymus the Blind all considered this gospel to be reliable if nevertheless somewhat a departure from the standard. Written in Greek, it was used by and probably originated among Hellenistai who became Christians. Several of its reported passages appear at least quasi-Gnostic.
Origen reports that the pericope of the post-baptismal temptation by Satan, narrated here from the point-of-view of Jesus himself, concludes with, “Even so did my Mother, the Holy Spirit, take me by one of my hairs and carry me away on to the great mountain Tabor.”
This indicates a Trinity formula of “Father, Son, and Mother” which is found in at least one other Gnostic work from the early centuries CE.
Trimorphic Protennoia, late 2nd century
This Gnostic work found at Nag Hammadi is the other which refers to the Trinity as the Father, Son, and Mother.
Gospel of Philip, 3rd century
This Valentian works contains several references to the Trinity as three persons and discussion of the roles of each, using the standard designations Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Tripartite Tractate, mid-3rd century CE
This Gnostic work has a Trinity of sorts, the Father, the Son, and the Church, the last being a creation of the second. It also discusses Sophia, and expounds at length on the Logos.
Spurious interpolations in the New Testament
Adherents of the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity, particularly evangelicals, point to three New Testament passages in particular to support the claim that followers of Jesus have always believed in the Trinity. First is the Great Commission found in the Gospel of Matthew. Second is in the First Epistle of John. Third is in Paul of Tarsus’ Second Epistle to the Corinthians.
The problem with these as testimony is that the portions in italics, that part most relevant to the Trinitarians’ case, are spurious, interpolations by later editors.
Gospel of Matthew 28:19
‘Go therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’
According to various Church Fathers, the words in italics were not in the earliest copies of this gospel. In Chapter 14 of Against Noetus, Hippolytus of Rome does quote this verse as given above in 225 CE; however, Eusebius quotes the same passage eight times Books I and III of his Demonstratio Evangelica, published in 311, without any specific formula for baptism at all.
By 375, this reading of the passage had apparently become standard because the Apostolic Constitutions quotes the Great Commission as above in two separate places: Book II, Chapter XXVI and Book VII, Chapter XXII.
First Epistle of John 5:7
‘There are three that bear witness in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit: and these three are one.’
The oldest manuscripts available lack the words in italics. Most modern translation eliminate them from the text; some include them in a footnote.
2 Corinthians 13:13
‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.’ (KJV)
According to the Latin Church Father Tertullian, the copy of this epistle brought to Rome by Marcion of Sinope, along with the others of the first ten Pauline and pseudo-Pauline epistles ever mentioned, lacked the words in italics. Except for the Pastorals of pseudo-Paul from the second century, all the epistles attributed to Paul, save for Romans, end with ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you’, so Tertullian’s report of Marcion’s wording is consistent and probably more accurate than any copy we have now.
Those three “Pastorals”, incidentally, close with, ‘Grace be with you’. The genuine part of the letter to the Romans ends with ‘The God of peace be with you all. Amen’.
Didache, late 1st century
This document, from the genre of ancient church orders, was counted by many Church Fathers as a canonical book of the New Testament. Even later, after most authorities ejected it from the canon, many Church Fathers, including Augustine of Hippo, deemed it important, enough to rank it as ‘deuterocanonical’.
At Didache 7:1, it gives the Trinitarian baptismal formula, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. This is almost certainly an interpolation from the third century. Later in the document, at Didache 9:5, there is an allusion to an earlier formula for baptism “in the name of the Lord”.
Valid New Testament references
Not to the Trinity, mind you, but references in whose name letters were sent to churches and new believers were baptized. Paul’s letters, the genuine article as well as the pseudepigraphs which follow his lead, lift up ‘God our Father’ and ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ in their greetings, and that of Jude does as well, a Binity of sorts rather than a Trinity, though many points indicate that the writer of a particular work even though he may consider Jesus divine, it is not on the same level as “God” or “God the Father”. The Spirit, or Holy Spirit in some places, figures in as well, but none of the works of the New Testament ever spells out how.
Paul of Tarsus’ Epistles, mid 1st century
We’ve already taken a look at how Paul, and the one or more pseudo-Pauls after him writing in his name, close letters, now let’s look at the opening greetings.
The Pauline-attributed letters to the churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Colossae, Philippi, and Thessalonika, and to Philemon all open with the following: ‘Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.’
The two to Timothy begin: ‘Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.’
That to Titus begins: ‘Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.’
Jude, brother of James, Epistle, late 1st century
This epistle, probably pseudepigraphal, begins with this salutation: ‘To the only God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen’.
Acts of the Apostles, mid 2nd century
The Acts of the Apostles, the earliest widely known work of the New Testament outside of the gospels. The original form of this work dates from the mid-second century and supports the latter baptismal formula in the Didache at every reference to baptism. As we now have it, the work dates from no earlier than the late second century, linked by a common editor with a heavily interpolated version of the gospel brought to Rome by Marcion of Sinope, to whom Acts was apparently unknown.
‘Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.’ (2:38)
‘For as yet he [the Holy Spirit] was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.’ (8:16)
‘And he [Peter] commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then prayed they him to tarry certain days.’ (10:48)
“When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.’ (19:5)
Gospel of Luke 11:49-51a, late 2nd century
The text of the canonical gospel we have today was edited by someone sending linked copies of it and Acts to one “Theophilus”, whom many believe may be the eponymous bishop of Antioch, whose term in office was in the late second century.
‘Therefore also the Sophia of God said, ‘I will send to them prophets and apostles; and some of them they will kill and persecute, that the blood of all the prophets, which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation; from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zachariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary.’
Valid historical Trinitarian baptismal formulae
“Valid” as opposed to the fraudulent witnesses in Matthew and the Didache. The first formulae for baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity, in form if not in substance, began to appear in the mid-second century. These formulae were genuinely in use at the time they were given.
Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 61, 151 CE
Justin’s two formulae are a good example of Trinitarian formulae for baptism in which the underlying theology does not quite match up to that later deemed “orthodox”. On the surface, they look standard, but his comments elsewhere belie that.
In the first formula Justin gives, the candidate would be dunked after each person of the Trinity was named.
I baptize you in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit.
The same applies to the second, but with full sentences in this case.
I baptize you in the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe.
I baptize you in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
I baptize you in the name of the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus.
Old Roman baptismal interrogatory, mid-3rd century CE
This interrogatory was adapted from the “creedal” version, which itself was adapted from the original interrogatory. By this point, the statement of simple belief contains an affirmation of the official doctrine and theology of the Church, which was common everywhere, not just at Rome.
The presbyters asks:
Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?
The candidate replies:
And is then dunked.
Do you believe in Christ Jesus his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried, who on the third day rose again from the dead, ascended to heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father, whence he will come to judge the living and the dead?
And is then dunked.
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Church, the remission of sins, and the resurrection of the flesh?
And is then dunked.
In later centuries, the baptismal interrogatory came to be preceded by a series of renunciations, short and simple at first, then longer.
Apostolic Constitutions, 375
This compilation of earlier church orders, including material from the Didache, the Didascalia Apostolorum, and the Apostolic Tradition, makes clear that the Trinitarian formula is now the sole one by which new believers may be ‘baptized into the death of the Lord’.
Book III, chapter XVI provides the same Trinitarian formula used now, ‘In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’, during which the candidate is dipped three times.
In the Ethiopian version of this chapter, the candidate first repeats, ‘I believe in the only true God, the Father Almighty, and in his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, and in the Holy Spirit, the Life-giver’, then is dunked thrice.
Book VII, Chapter XV insists that Trinitarian is the only acceptable formula for “true baptism”.
Pseudo-Ambrose’s On the Sacraments, 391
Included in a document written by an anonymous author posing as the famous Ambrose of Milan, this interrogatory is one of the most primitive surviving and probably dates back to at least the mid-second century.
Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?
Do you believe in our Lord Jesus Christ and his Cross?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?
Development in the Church Fathers
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity clearly did not fall off the back of the pick-up truck, so to speak, in one piece as we have it today. After the Church Fathers “borrowed” the motif from their Gnostic rivals, they began to form it in their own image. The first stage was, in fact, almost a word-for-word repeat of Philo’s hypotheses.
Justin Martyr of Flavia Neapolis and Rome, First Apology, Chapter 13, Verses 5–6, 151 CE
Here Justin ranks the “Persons” of the Trinity in order: the Father hold first place, the Son of the true God the second, and the Spirit the 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.’
Justin also refers to Jesus as the Logos in Chapters 5 and 60 of his apology.
Athenagoras of Athens, A Plea for Christians, Chapter X: The Christians Worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 176 CE
Here Athenagoras expounds on the role of the Son as the Logos as the creative agent of God the Father, much as the Platonic or Stoic Logos is the creative agent of the One, and asserts that the Spirit to be an “effluence” of God.
‘That we are not atheists, therefore, seeing that we acknowledge one God, uncreated, eternal, invisible, impassible, incomprehensible, illimitable, who is apprehended by the understanding only and the reason, who is encompassed by light, and beauty, and spirit, and power ineffable, by whom the universe has been created through his Logos, and set in order, and is kept in being-I have sufficiently demonstrated. I say “his Logos”, for we acknowledge also a Son of God. Nor let anyone think it ridiculous that God should have a Son. For though the poets, in their fictions, represent the gods as no better than men, our mode of thinking is not the same as theirs, concerning either God the Father or the Son.
‘But the Son of God is the Logos of the Father, in thought and in operation; for by him and through him all things were made, the Father and the Son being one. And, the Son being in the Father and the Father in the Son, in oneness and power of the Spirit, the Mind and the Word of the Father is the Son of God. But if, in your surpassing intelligence, it occurs to you to inquire what is meant by “the Son”, I will state briefly that he is the first-begotten of the Father, not as having been brought into existence—for from the beginning, God had the Logos in himself, God being eternal mind and eternally rational; but in as much as he came forth to be the model and energizing force of all material things, which lay like a nature without attributes, and an inactive earth, the grosser particles being mixed up with the lighter. The prophetic Spirit also agrees with our statements. “The Lord,” it says, “made me, the beginning of his ways to his works.” The Holy Spirit himself also, which operates in the prophets, we assert to be an effluence of God, flowing from him, and returning back again like a beam of the sun.’
Creed of Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 180 CE, Book I, Chapter X, Section 1
I supplied the entire text of this creed, or “Rule of Faith”, in my essay on the Creeds of the Christian Church; the opening phrases are those most relevant here.
‘The Church believes in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God...’
Again, as with Justin Martyr, the three “Persons” of the Trinity are given, but in a context somewhat less than orthodox by the standards of the fourth century ecumenical councils.
Theophilos of Antioch, Apology To Autolycus, Book II, Chapter 15, 181 CE
‘In like manner also the three days which were before the luminaries, are types of the Triad, of God, and his Logos, and his Sophia. And the fourth is the type of man, who needs light, that so there may be God, the Logos, Sophia, man.’
Theophilos, who may be the individual to whom the editor of the composite Gospel of Luke-Acts of the Apostles addressed his works, used the metaphors of “hands of God” to illustrate the relationship Logos and Sophia to God the Father.
Tertullian of Carthage, Against Praxeas, 216 CE
Tertullian was the first of the Church Fathers to take the Trinitarian formula from the Gnostics and make it the Church’s own in the now-standard form of “Three Persons in One Being”.
‘And at the same time the mystery of the oikonomia is safeguarded, for the unity is distributed in a Trinity. Placed in order, the three are the Father, Son, and Spirit. They are three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in being, but in form; not in power, but in kind; of one being, however, and one condition and one power, because he is one God of whom degrees and forms and kinds are taken into account in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’ This is very nearly the same as the definition of Valentinus the Gnostic.
Hippolytus of Rome, Against Noetus, Chapter 14, 220 CE
Quasi-orthodox, this passage includes the quotation of the Great Commission at the end of the Gospel of Matthew in its current form, which, as we shall see, clearly did not appear in every copy of that gospel.
‘The Father’s Word, therefore, knowing the oikonomia and the will of the Father, to wit, that the Father seeks to be worshipped in none other way than this, gave this charge to the disciples after he rose from the dead: ‘Go ye and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’ And by this he showed that whosoever omitted any one of these, failed in glorifying God perfectly. For it is through the Trinity that the Father is glorified. For the Father willed, the Son did, and the Spirit manifested.’
Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles Book 1, Chapter 3, 225 CE
Here Origen uses what is now traditional terminology, but as we can infer from elsewhere in the same writing, does not do so with the same meaning.
‘For it is the Trinity alone which exceeds every sense in which not only temporal but even eternal may be understood. It is all other things, indeed, which are outside the Trinity, which are to be measured by time and ages....
‘It seems right to inquire into the reason why he who is “born again through God” to salvation has need of both Father and Son and Holy Spirit and will not obtain salvation apart from the entire Trinity, and why it is impossible to become partaker of the Father or the Son without the Holy Spirit. In discussing these points it will undoubtedly be necessary to describe the activity which is peculiar to the Holy Spirit and that which is peculiar to the Father and Son.’
Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles, Book 1, Chapter 3, 225 CE
Here Origen’s views appear in plain language, that the Father is greater than the Son who is greater than the Holy Spirit.
‘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...’
Didascalia Apostolorum, 230 CE (Syria)
The first known major work from the Patristic period to do so, this opens ‘In the name of the Father Almighty, and of the Eternal Logos and only Son, and of the Holy Spirit, one true God’.
Novation of Rome, Treatise on the Trinity, Chapter 11, 256 CE
More in the field of Christology than theology, this passage from Novation’s work on the Trinity deals with the dual nature of Jesus Christ.
‘For Scripture as much announces Christ as also God, as it announces God himself as man. It has as much described Jesus Christ to be man, as moreover it has also described Christ the Lord to be God. Because it does not set forth him to be the Son of God only, but also the son of man; nor does it only say, the son of man, but it has also been accustomed to speak of him as the Son of God. So that being of both, he is both, lest if he should be one only, he could not be the other. For as nature itself has prescribed that he must be believed to be a man who is of man, so the same nature prescribes also that he must be believed to be God who is of God…. Let them, therefore, who read that Jesus Christ the son of man is man, read also that this same Jesus is called also God and the Son of God.’
Eusebius of Caesarea, Demonstratio Evangelica, 311
Eusebius cites Matthew 28:19 as saying, “Go forth and make disciples of all nations in my name, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever that I have commanded you,” at several points in this work: three in Book I and five in Book III.
That he did so is proof beyond any reasonable doubt that the insertion of the Trinitarian formula into the passage is of relatively late date, almost certainly post-Nicaea (325). True, Hippolytus quotes it with the formula in the early third century, but that was eighteen centuries before Al Gore and the birth of the internet, and would thus have taken some time to get around. Also, until the ecumenical councils, the Church lacked imperial force.
Sacramentary of Sarapion, 360
Sarapion, one of the great saints of the Eastern Church and one of the Greek Fathers, uses a doxology condemned as heretical just a few decades later: “…through your only-begotten Jesus Christ, through whom to you is the glory and the strength in the Holy Spirit both now and to all the ages of ages”. The only way this could be considered heterodox would be on the same basis as the older form of the Gloria Patri: not being sufficiently cheerleaderly of the party line.
Triumph of the Trinitarians
This came by way of the imperially-backed Ecumenical Councils, most importantly those of Nicaea in 325 and at Constantinopolis in 381. The doctrinal statements of those two affairs are in my essay on the creeds.