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Controversies in Early Christianity: The Nature of Christ and the Trinity

"The traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity is commonly expressed as the claim that the one God “exists as” Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or as the claim that there are three divine persons “in” God, or as the claim that God “exists in three Persons”. In theological contexts, there are two central formulas. The first is that the Father, Son, and Spirit are consubstantial (i.e., the same in substance or essence, Greek: homoousios). The second is that the Christian God is three “persons” (Greek: hypostaseis or prosopa, Latin: personae) in one “essence” or “being” (Greek: ousia, Latin: substantia or essentia). Both formulas have been understood in many ways.

After their formulation in the fourth century, the above formulas reigned unchallenged, and were widely assumed as basis for Christian theorizing about God. From the Reformation through the 19th century, the origin, meaning, and justification of the trinitarian doctrine were repeatedly disputed. These debates are discussed in detail in supplementary documents to the present entry. Since the revival of analytic philosophy of religion in the 1960s, many Christian philosophers have pursued philosophical theology, in which central Christian doctrines are given precise (and, it is hoped, defensible) formulations. This article surveys these formulations and the recent scholarly disputes concerning them. The fundamental issue is what is distinctive in the Christian conception of God, as opposed to the gods of other monotheistic religions."...Trinity (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

The Nature of the Christ and the Trinity

    With the Council of Constantinople (381) the Trinitarian controversy was settled. However, questions regarding the nature of Christ remained; what was the relationship between his human and divine natures: These issues were discussed and debated for years and the decision reached at Chalcedon (451) ultimately split the empire into two religious groups which have never been reconciled.
  • The Arian Controversy
    ""Early in the fourth century, while Bishop Alexander of Alexandria was expounding on the Trinity to his flock, a theological tsunami was born.

    A Libyan priest named Arius stood up and posed the following simple question: "If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence." In other words, if the Father is the parent of the Son, then didn't the Son have a beginning?

    And the nitpicking over the precise nature of the Trinity began. An issue that continues to this day."
    "The church did not, however, accept that Jesus was the omnipotent and omniscient God who only appeared to be a man. In what became a definitive statement, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE promulgated the view that Jesus was ‘fully man’ as well as ‘fully God’, without claiming to explain how this could be. It is important to note that most Christians insisted that Jesus was a real man, not some sort of illusion or apparition of a man.

    "In what, then, did such a union of divine and human consist? It was Tertullian, writing in Latin in the second century CE, who invented the terms that have since become standard in Christian theology. He said that Jesus was two substances (substantia) in one person (persona). Jesus is both God and man, having a divine nature and a human nature united in one person (the word ‘nature’ was later adopted by the council of Chalcedon as a clearer term than ‘substance’, so that Jesus was said to be two natures in one person).

    "Tertullian was also the first writer to use the term ‘Trinity’ of God, saying that God was three persons – Father, Son and Spirit – in one substance. From this it follows that the one person of Christ is identical with the second person of the Trinity. It is easy then to conclude that Christ is a divine person who adds a human nature to his properly divine nature, or ‘assumes’ a human nature to the divine person, without really being a human person.

    "In other words, Jesus has a human nature, but is not strictly speaking a human person. He is a divine person with a human nature. And that divine person is one of three who together constitute the substance, the being, of God.

    "This is a major change from the Jesus of the synoptic gospels, who is presented as a human person with unique and divinely given authority and powers, but who is expressly said to be limited in knowledge and power, and who insists, with orthodox Judaism, that ‘the Lord your God is one Lord’. It is not a change in the sense of renouncing or contradicting what Mark’s gospel says. But what it says about God and Jesus would have been quite unknown to Mark – and, if Mark is right, to Jesus also."
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