The Trinity: Tertullian and Hilary

The Trinity: Tertullian and Hilary

The Trinitarian formulations of the early Church often seem to our postmodern culture as the inevitable brainchild of monastic orders, burlap habits, deserts, and Neoplatonic philosophy. Austere, abstract, and unconnected from everyday life - just like the stereotypical image of a monk. Even worse, in a fit of postmodern amnesia, it is no less than the Christian community who has lost sight of the significance of the Trinity for the Christian life. Does it really matter whether we refer to God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Are these not simply human conventions imposed upon an infinitely loving being? Have we not outgrown such small-mindedness? What could detailed, protracted arguments over the terms perichoresis, hypostasis, communicatio idiomatum, monarchia, and oikonomia possibly offer the 21st century Church in terms of its devotion to Christ and the growth of His Church? Won't our God-consciousness simply choke and die on the dust of such dogmatic doctrine?

It is precisely this modern God-forgetfulness in reference to the doctrine of the Trinity that belies much of the modern lack of depth, awe, and reverence. First and foremost, the debates about the Trinity were not simply semantic spats among would-be philosophers. These controversies generally arose like Church controversies arise today - in the pew and the pulpit. And thus, the men that answered the challenges were generally pastors and laity committed to the Word of God and salvation by God's grace. And so, if you read Tertullian or Hilary of Poitiers and note an undercurrent of impatience, sorrow, and brokenness; it is because these men witnessed the declension of many Christian friends and brethren from the faith. Why would Tertullian who lived through at least three major Roman persecutions of Christians, defend the Trinity so fervently? Was such a time of persecution an ambience of comfort to simply banter about words? At the bottom of the issue is how should Christians speak and think about God? How do we make sense of the revelation of Scripture that God is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? How do we grant full weight to all of what is revealed? On the bottom line, how does this impact our salvation?

The doctrine of the Trinity is by no means the easiest doctrine in the world to articulate, much less to even begin to plumb its depths. And this has nothing to do with the fact that most of the theological terminology is derived and developed from patristic Latin and Greek. It is a difficult doctrine to understand because we are touching upon the question of how God exists as God. Our creaturely minds strain and yet cannot comprehend how God exists as God, but only that God exists as God and, furthermore, only in what manner God reveals himself to us in Scripture. A strong and much needed caveat is in order - a point with which the Church Fathers, I think, would heartily agree - we may only assert ultimately what Scripture asserts and speak guardedly about what we infer from it. We are beyond our ken in these depths and may fathom not the bottom. Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity is the grammar of what we must say and of what we may not say. It consists in boundary markers as it were. Two men in the western, Latin branch of the Church who clarified, expounded, and defended the doctrine of the Trinity were Tertullian and Hilary of Poitiers.

Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florentius Tertullianus circa 155 - 230 A.D.)

Tertullian laments in his brief work, Adversus Praxeas composed circa 210 A.D. as a defense of the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, that the true doctrine of the Trinity is more than likely to confuse, much less enlighten the simple, or average, Christian. In Tertullian's day, Christians lived in a polytheistic environment and, consequently, were extraordinarily sensitive to any doctrine that might be construed as a threat to their beloved (and oftentimes newly believed) monotheism. It is no small point to say that Tertullian was defending the traditional doctrine of the Trinity and was not originating it. Throughout his work, Adversus Praxeas, he speaks as a representative of a "we." For example Tertullian says, "we, however, as we indeed always have done ... believe that there is only one God."[1] Or again, pressing Praxeas to prove his points from Scripture like "we" do, Tertullian demands "You ought to prove plainly, however, your points as we ourselves prove that He made His Word a Son to Himself."[2] This "we" refers to the orthodox belief as handed down, as Tertullian says, "from the beginning."[3]

As far as terminology is concerned, Tertullian speaks of a divine economy [oikonomia] within the Trinity. That is, it is proper to speak of the divine rule of God, or monarchy of God [monarcia], as fundamentally unified, and yet diverse in respect to each persons' function in our redemption. Thus, God the Father has a will encompassing all of Creation and Redemption, God the Son is the visible manifestation of God who accomplished that will, and God the Holy Spirit applies the work of the Son according to the will of the Father to believers. There is a consequent unity of purpose, yet diversity in its operation. On this point, for example, Tertullian exposits John 10:34-38[4] where Christ says that He is in the Father, and the Father is in Him, "it must therefore be by the works that the Father is in the Son, and the Son in the Father; and so it is by the works that we understand that the Father is one with the Son."[5] This point offers a great amount of clarity by preventing the confusion of the Father as the Son (and vice versa). It also maintains the distinctiveness of their persons and the unity of their essence, or substance [substantia]. Tertullian reiterates the distinctiveness of the Holy Spirit saying, "Thus the connection of the Father in the Son and of the Son in the Paraclete makes three coherent ones [TR - persons], one distinct from the other; these three exist as one essence, not as one person, just as it is said 'I and my Father, we are one," in respect to the unity of substance, not to the singularity of number.[6]

Now let us look at language that all orthodox Christians should recognize, compare Tertullian's formulations[7] with the Nicene Creed (apologies in advance for the length!):

Tertullian, Adversus Praxeas

We ... believe that there is one only God, but under the following dispensation... that this one only God has also a Son, His Word, who proceeded from Himself, by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made.

Him we believe to have been sent by the Father into the Virgin, and to have been born of her-being both Man and God, the Son of Man and the Son of God, and to have been called by the name of Jesus Christ;

We believe Him to have suffered, died, and been buried, according to the Scriptures, and, after He had been raised again by the Father and taken back to heaven, to be sitting at the right hand of the Father, and that He will come to judge the quick and the dead; who sent also from heaven from the Father, according to His own promise, the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, the sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost.

The Apostle's Creed

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.

As far as Tertullian is concerned, we have an early voice (approximately 210 A.D.) who attributes his basic understanding of the Trinity to a scripturally-based tradition handed down in the Church. Furthermore, he engages polemically with Praxeas on the basis of Scripture, expounding a plethora of verses from the Gospel of John. Remember that the Marcionites, modalists, and other of that ilk claimed support from the Gospel of John specifically because it did not have an "earthly" genealogy of Christ. Thus, Tertullian succeeded in beating them at their own game, even pressing them to utilize all of Scripture in the Old and New Testaments!

Hilary of Poitier (Hilarius Pictavensis circa 300 - 367 A.D.)

We now pass on to Hilary of Poitiers, who lived, labored, and contended for the faith in the fourth century in the Roman world. Hilary is often passed by in studying the doctrine of the Trinity in favor of the works of Tertullian or Augustine. Perhaps the reason is that he labored for, and lost for a season, a specific argument with a bishop with Arian tendencies who enjoyed significant influence over the Emperor of the Western Empire and consequently the Church. Hilary's contribution in his work De Trinitate (circa 356 A.D.) is primarily centered on Christology. We also find in Hilary unbounded respect and reverence for the Word of God as the rule of faith and life. Furthermore, he does not hesitate to utilize the Old Testament and the New Testament to prove his points - in his estimation, they are one undivided whole. It is appropriate to recognize at the outset that the texts which he utilized were the Greek Septuagint and the Old Latin Version of the Old Testament (as he was unfamiliar with the Hebrew) and the Latin text for the New Testament.

In regard to Hilary's contribution to Christology, we must speak briefly of the tenets of Arianism. In short, Arianism maintained that Jesus was not the Son of God in a consubstantial sense (i.e. not of the same essence as God the Father) and therefore was created as a third kind of intermediate being (tertium quid), neither fully God nor fully man. Thus the Arian slogan, "There was a time when he (Christ) was not." This is the call to arms which rouses Hilary to write roughly 200 pages of highly nuanced Latin in his De Trinitate. Hilary argues on this point that Jesus Christ is the natural son of God, unique and only-begotten, and is not the recipient of God's gracious adoption in a sense similar to the adoption of believers. It is certainly true that believers are adopted children of God, but Hilary adamantly maintains that Christ is the Son of God par excellence - naturally, uniquely, and divinely. Consider Hilary's following comments:

Let us therefore cite every example of a statement of the faith made by an Apostle. All of them , when they confess the Son of God, confess Him not as a nominal and adoptive Son, but as Son by possession of that Divine nature. They never degrade Him to the level of a creature, but assign Him the splendor of a true birth from God ...[viii]

Commenting on John 1:18 "No one has seen God at any time, except the Only-begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him," Hilary notes:

It seemed to him [the Apostle John] that the name of Son did not set forth with sufficient distinctness His true Divinity, unless he gave an external support to the peculiar majesty of Christ by indicating the difference between Him and all others. Hence he not only calls Him the Son, but adds the further designation of the Only-begotten, and so cuts away the last prop from under this imaginary adoption. For the fact that He is Only-begotten is proof positive of His right to the name of Son.[ix]

This is not an esoteric point of patristic theology, but cuts to the heart of the evangelical faith. Hilary exposits Romans 8:14-15[x] and observes:

Can Son, by any remaining possibility, be a title received [TR - by Christ] through adoption, when He is expressly called God's own Son? For the Apostle, wishing to make manifest the love of God towards us, uses a kind of comparison, to enable us to estimate how great that love is, when He says that it was His own Son whom God did not spare. He suggests the thought that this was no sacrifice of an adopted Son, on behalf of those whom He purposed to adopt, of a creature for creatures, but of His Son for strangers, His own Son for those to whom He had willed to give a share in the name of sons. Seek out the full import of the term, that you may understand the extent of the love! Consider the meaning of own! Mark the genuineness of the Sonship which it implies. For the Apostle now describes Him as God's own Son! ... Previously he had declared that through the Spirit of adoption there are many sons; now his object is to point to God's own Son, God the Only begotten.[xi]

This last point concerning the uniqueness of the Son of God and the derivative, adoptive sonship of believers is a thread spanning centuries of Scriptural exposition and theological thought winding and weaving its way through Augustine, Chrysostom, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Bucer, and John Calvin, to name but a few. Thus, Hilary of Poitiers' contribution at this point is immense and not quickly overestimated. Hilary, standing on tip-toe, cries out across the ages that if we lose any part of the Trinity, whether divinity or humanity of Christ, we lose all! There is no Christianity, no salvation, no justification, no pardon, no remission of sins, no adoption, no communion with God, no hope of glory apart from the Only-Begotten, natural Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ!!

In conclusion, the Trinitarian formulations of Tertullian and Hilary are characterized by a deep dependence on the exposition of Holy Scripture. Thus, the preaching of the Gospel was at stake in these Trinitarian debates. The deep concern of both of these men was the preservation of the ontological unity of God, the economic diversity, and the consubstantial equality of the persons of the Trinity. In short, that God is revealed to mankind in the person of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man. That Christ was born, suffered, died, was resurrected, and ascended to the right hand of God the Father that we might enter into blessed communion with God. The Holy Spirit is the one who works in us by His Word and Power to draw us to Christ. None of this would be possible if Christ was neither human nor God. It is the same message that we must maintain today. And in so doing, we must pass on to the next generation of the Church a doctrine of the Trinity that grounds the biblical doctrine of salvation in the grace of God. Without the doctrine of the Trinity we cannot maintain that Christ is our Savior, God our Father, or the Holy Spirit our Comforter. This is why men like Tertullian and Hilary labored and toiled over such things as the words of doctrine for its preservation in the midst of persecution and ridicule. By God's grace may we do the same.


Hilary of Poitiers (Hilarius Pictavensis). De Trinitate Libri Duodecim (circiter an. 356 inchoati). Parisiis, Vrayet, 1845. J. Migne, Patrologia Latina: Tomus X.

Schaff, Philip & Henry Wace. Ante-Nicene Fathers. vol 3. Pea Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.

Schaff, Philip & Henry Wace. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Second Series, vol 9. Pea Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.

Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florentius Tertullianus). Adversus Praxeam: cum selectis praecedentium editionum lectionibus, variorumque commentariis. Parisiis: Garnier, 1879. J. Migne, Patrologia Latina: Tomus II.

Warfield, Benjamin B. The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield. Vol IV. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Company, 2003.

[1] Tertulliani Adversus Praxeas Liber, 2. "Nos vero et semper, et nunc magis ... unicum Deum credimus."

[2] Tertulliani Adversus Praxeas Liber, 11.1 "Probare autem tam aperte debebis ex scripturis, quam nos probamus illum sibi filium fecisse sermonem suum."

[3] This idea that Tertullian was preserving an orthodox tradition is not original with me, see Benjamin B. Warfield's extraordinarily helpful articles "Tertullian and the beginnings of the doctrine of the Trinity" in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol 4, p 1 - 109.

[4] (ESV) John 10:37-38 "If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father."

[5] Tertulliani Adversus Praxeas Liber, 22.13 "per opera ergo erit pater in filio et filius in patre, et ita per opera intellegimus unum esse patrem <et filium>"

[6] Tertulliani Adversus Praxeas Liber, 25.1 "ita connexus patris in filio et filii in paracleto tres efficit cohaerentes alterum ex altero. qui tres unum sunt, non unus, quomodo dictum est, Ego et pater unum sumus, ad substantiae unitatem non ad numeri singularitatem."

[7] Tertulliani Adversus Praxeas Liber, 2.1-4

[viii] De Trinitate, VI.39

[ix] Ibid, VI.39. "Naturae fides non satis explicata videbatur ex nomine filii, nisi proprietatis extrinsecus virtus per exceptionis significantiam adderetur. Praeter filium enim, et unigenitum cognominans, suspicionem penitus adoptionis exsecuit: cum veritatem nominis, unigeniti natura praestaret."

[x] Romans 8:31-32 "What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?"

[xi] De Trinitate, VI.45. "Num quidnam etiam nunc adoptionis in eo erit nuncupatio, in quo proprietatis est nomen? Apostolus enim volens charitatem erga nos Dei ostendere, ut magnificentia Dei dilectionis ex comparationis genere nosceretur, non pepercisse Deum proprio filio suo docuit: non utique pro adoptandis adoptato, neque pro creatis creaturae, sed pro alienis suo, pro connuncupandis proprio. Quaere virtutem dicti; ut magnitudinem charitatis intelligas. Quid sit proprium expende; ne ignores veritatem. Nunc enim Apostolus proprium ait filium, cum in multis vel suum vel eius saepe dixisset. ... ut qui superius filios plures per spiritum adoptionis demonstrasset, nunc unigenitum Deum filium proprietatis ostenderet."