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Trinity: The Idea Was There, The Word Came Later

Different Christian groups and denominations have many ideas and phrases which are common. For instance, the idea that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and that God as Jesus’ Father is a common idea among Christians. The Trinity is another common idea among Christians. The Trinity is the idea that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I explain this to my classes in this way. I am one person, Mark Nickens, but I am a father, husband, and son. I have three different roles but I am the same person.

But the idea of the Trinity is different than that of the Virgin Mary in that the story of the Virgin Mary is in the New Testament but the word "Trinity" is not. To be sure, the idea is there, probably stated most prominently by Jesus in Matthew 28: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." (NIV) Yet the word "Trinity" itself is not in the Bible.

So from were did it come? Two sources, actually: Theophilus (lived in the 100s) headed toward the word, but it is in Tertullian’s (160-225) writing that we see the word for the first time. They both wrote apologies, which is a term used in Christianity to describe a written defense of Christianity.

Theophilus wrote an apology in three books (long letters) to his friend Autolycus. Theophilus states in his second book, "When we had formerly some conversation, my very good friend Autolycus, and when you inquired who was my God, and for a little paid attention to my discourse, I made some explanations to you concerning my religion . . . As you then afterwards urged me to do, I am desirous [to write this book]." In this second book, in the fifteenth chapter, Theophilus explained how God created the world. Once he gets to the fourth day [when God created the sun, moon, and stars], Theophilus compares the first three days to God. He states: "In like manner also the three days which were before the luminaries (sun, moon, and stars in the fourth day), are types of the Trinity, of God, and His Word, and His Wisdom." So, here we have the word Trinity used to describe God/Son/Holy Spirit. But the word translated "Trinity" is from the Greek word "trias" which is the idea of a triad, of three parts. So, Theophilus did not come up with the word "Trinity," but was headed in the right direction.

Tertullian eventually coined the word. In his book "On Modesty" he mentions the word in chapter 21. Toward the end of that chapter he describes the church and then makes this statement: "For the very Church itself is, properly and principally, the Spirit Himself, in whom is the Trinity of the One Divinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

Tertullian wrote this book in Latin and the word he used is "Trinitas," which is "Trinity" in English. So there you have it. The word "Trinity" is not in the Bible, but the idea is; the word came later as the early Christians tried to explain the concept of 3 in 1.

This notion of an idea coming before its unique phrasing occurs from time-to-time. For instance, the idea of the separation of church and state is one which most Americans would embrace (although different interpretations are possible!). But did you know that the phrase "separation of church and state" is not in the United States Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, nor in any Amendment? It comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1801 in response to questions about the religious liberty. So, this is another example of the popular word (or phrase) coming after the idea was accepted.

©2006 Mark Nickens

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