The Doctrine of the Trinity in the Early Church

The Cappadocians

Beginning with the work of Hilary of Poiters in 356, the East and West gradually came to realize that their views were in agreement.  Hilary demonstrated the East (homoiousians)and West (homoousians) were in fact in agreement on the question of the relationship of the Son to the Father.  Hilary further pointed out that the concerns of the East concerning the definition of homoousia were unfounded.  These groups finally realized that their positions were not in disagreement at the Alexandrine Synod of 362, and thus the groups began an alliance that would result in a final denunciation of the Arians.12   The “Three Great Cappadocians”, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa worked diligently to define the relationship between the persons of the Godhead.  These men took it upon themselves to correctly interpret the Nicene Creed for both East and West, clarifying the terminology and offering a solution.

The Cappadocians not only clarified the relationship of the Son to the Father, but also the role and deity of the Holy Spirit.  The Arian position had also necessitated a denial of the deity of the Spirit, and indeed they taught that the Spirit had been created by the Father through the Son.  Thus the Arians taught that the Spirit was subordinate and inferior to both Christ and the Father.13  

The Cappadocians clearly taught the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, concentrating on the differences between essence and persons.  Basil of Casesarea states, “Wherefore, in the case of the Godhead, we confess one essence or substance so as not to give a variant definition of existence, but we confess a particular hypostasis, in order that our conception of Father, Son and Holy Spirit may be without confusion and clear.”14   And again, “For as there is one Father and one Son, so is there one Holy Ghost.”  Also regarding the Trinity, Gregory of Nazianzus states, “If ever there was a time when the Father was not, then there was a time when the Son was not.  If ever there was a time when the Son was not, then there was a time when the Spirit was not.  If the One was from the beginning, then the Three were so too.”15
The work of the Cappadocians set the stage for the Council of Constantinople in 381 to permanently set aside the views of Arius as a valid theological alternative. “They affirmed that there are in God three hypostases and only one ousia or, in other words, three individual subsistences that participate in one divine essence.”16   Though little is known about the Council of Constantinople, the creed that resulted from the gathering was distinctly Cappadocian.  The Council was composed only of Eastern bishops, but it is generally referred to as an ecumenical council because the West accepted its statement as agreeing with orthodox Trinitarianism.  Indeed, the significant Trinitarian theologians of the West, Hilary of Poitiers and Augustine, both borrowed heavily from the Cappadocians.  Thus the Creed of Constantinople and the work of the Cappadocians should be regarded as the church’s defining statement of an orthodox doctrine of the Triune God.

12Ibid., 287.
13Hannah, John, “HT200 Class Notes,”, 7.11.
14Ibid., 7.12.
15Ibid., 7.13.
16Gonzalez, Justo, A History of Christian Thought, Vol I, 287.