Nevertheless 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.

The above from Origen (c.254 CE), On First Principles identifies the divine elements of Trinity and asserts its role in salvation. The doctrine of Trinity, God as Three in One, exists in three eternally distinct 'persons': Father, Son, and Spirit. Origen constructed a theological system that weds the church's threefold understanding of God. He was able to incorporate the work of his predecessors, systematise and develop all his doctrines in his greatest theological work, On First Principles. His imaginative work represents one of the most significant episodes in the history of theology. It is during the patristic centuries that the church's Trinitarian faith assumed the shape it largely retained throughout its history.
[2]   It is one of the most distinctive and fundamental tenets of Christian faith.
Primitive Christianity, like Judaism, distinguished itself from paganism by its unqualified monotheism. What distinguished it within, and later from Judaism was its conviction that Jesus was the Christ, the unique Son of God. The idea of the triadic manifestation of the Godhead was already present from the earliest period as part of Christian piety and thinking. This was in conformity with the teaching in the New Testament  (Matt 28:19), but no steps were taken to work through the implications of this idea and arrive at a cohesive doctrine of God.

Immediately following the New Testament, between end of first and middle of second century, a number of writings "the Apostolic Fathers" appear. These Apologists, educated pagan converts, present Christianity to the Greco-Roman culture of their day in such a way as to defend Christianity against the charge of atheism. Justin Martyr (167 AD) found the link in the Logos notion of pagan philosophy of Stoicism and Platonism - the two most influential schools in the early centuries of the Christian era. This Triad of the philosophers consisting of God, Logos, Psyche was similar to the Christian Triad and this ability to rationalise Christianity with Stoicism and Platonism gave Christian faith universal significance and substantiated its claim upon both Jew and Gentiles. The basic problem confronting the Apologists was now how to reconcile the triadic statement of God with the equally emphatic assertion of the faith that God is one.

During the third century, a new generation of theologians succeeds the Apologists. These writers inherit the general theological position of the Apologists and attempt to develop it further. The main contributors in this area are Irenaeus (115-202), Tertullian (200), Hippolytus (170-236), Clement (160-215) and Origen. At the same time two main heresies concerning God become prominent: one is Modalism or Monarchianism that endangered the Logos theology in the unity of God. Modalism asserted that there is only one God with three distinct references of the Triad as Father, Son and the Holy Spirit; these are simply different names for the one God in different forms or modes (hence Modalism). The other is the Christian Gnosticism which attempts to give Subordinationism a religious philosophy by stating that the saving gnosis is Christ, a Spiritual being from the Heavenly World who is distinguished from the man Jesus upon whom he descended either at birth or baptism and from whom he departed before his passion and death.

Although some of these writers write apologies for the Christian religion, this is not their main literary preoccupation; neither this is where their attitudes towards God are presented. Their aim is to warn the Christians against erroneous teaching. We therefore see literature largely written within the Church and addressed to the Church. These writers are now called upon anew to assert and clarify the specific Christian understanding of God as both one and three.

Irenaeu's special contribution is seen in his retrieval and reintroduction of the Pauline concept of the Spirit as life giving. Irenaeus depicts God's Word and Spirit as becoming his "hands" for the work of the economy. However, he scarcely broaches the question of the eternal relationships among Father, Son, and Spirit or conceives of them as 'divine' "persons". Both Hippolytus and Tertullian, while concerned with the threat of Gnosticism, now also find themselves confronted by Modalism. Hippolytus who writes in Greek from Rome and Tertullian in North Africa in Latin rebut Modalism by means of a refined Economic Trinitarianism. The language difference adds further confusion to the theological discussion of the meaning of God in Christian faith and strongly emphasises the real distinction of the Father, Son and Spirit. Both still placed the Son's generation prior to his work of creation but sharpened the distinct individuality of the Logos immanent eternally in the Godhead. Tertullian was the first to use the word trinitas. The Godhead was a single substantia, shared by the Son and the Spirit. The three personae were three not in their basic quality or power but in 'grade' or 'sequence', 'aspect' and 'manifestation'.

Developments of another sort were taking place simultaneously in the Eastern Church, around the city of Alexandria. Clement of Alexandria as head of the catechetical school taught that God is transcendent, ineffable and incomprehensible. He is a unity beyond all unity and a monad embracing all unity. This is a God who can only be known through his Word or Son. The Son is the image of the Father, his mind or rationality. He is the mediator between the utterly transcendent God, the One, and the world which he contains. Clement speaks of the Spirit as the light from the Word who enlightens the faith. The Spirit is also the power of the Word which pervades creation and attracts individuals to God. Clement therefore presents an image of the Trinity, likening the triad Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with a strong resemblance to the triad of Neoplatonism: the One, Mind and World Soul.

Origen of Alexandria, a student of Clement, a theologian and biblical scholar moved beyond Clement in constructing a theological system that harmonises the Church's threefold understanding of God to the categories of Middle Platonism. In the Preface to On First Principle Origen he too confronts the Marcionite and gnostic doctrines which separated God of the Old Testament from the Father of Jesus Christ, making the former a just God, the latter a good God. There is only one God, who created everything he asserts, who promised the prophets the coming of his Son and subsequently sent Him. There is only one God for the law, the prophets and the apostles, for the Old Testament and for the New.

Origen was also expounding his doctrines at a time where strict adherence to tradition was particularly prized and any departure from it aroused immediate suspicion. Though his work was well read, Origen is never content simply to repeat his predecessors. According to Marsh, in his Preface to On First Principles, Origen outlines the Rule of Faith as he has learnt it in the church of Alexandria. This for him is a fixed teaching handed down in the churches from the Apostles and not open to dispute. But this teaching leaves many questions unresolved and therefore open to speculation. The probing mind of Origen seizes these grey areas and his work is a work of speculation, a theology of research, a theology in process. The originality of his mind, his erudition, the range of ideas he is able to envisage ensures he is able to get out of the stereotypes of his mind and chart a new course.
[7] On First Principles he produces the first synthesis of philosophical theology. Previous writers had written on the Trinity chiefly in refutation of various aberrant teachers, or had given a necessarily superficial account of the Church's tenets for the purpose of apologetic. Clement has attempted something like a general account of the Christian "gnosis" but it was not in his nature to be systematic. Origen's work is based on the scriptural revelation and on the deliverance of human reason. On matters which were treated neither by Scripture nor by Christian tradition he feels free to speculate. [8]

Origen's theology of God as Trinity notes the basic and traditional assertion that there is one God who is the father of the Lord Jesus Christ and sender of the Holy Spirit. Basing his comments on the opening sentence of John' Gospel, Origen explains that this one God is the God-in-Godself and his divinity is his own and not derived whereas the Logos is simply called God because his divinity, though real and true, is derived from the supreme God. This supreme God who is generating a Son and breathing forth the Spirit also constitutes a Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is the triadic understanding of God which Christian faith confesses and which forms the basis of salvation. The term Trinity, as Marsh states, occurs a number of times in Origen's writings. The three members of the Triad are three hypostases. The term in this context signifies the distinct and individual existence of the members of the Triad. It corresponds, therefore, to prosopon in Hippolytus and persona in Tertullian. But hypostasis can also refer to the being or substance of something and was identical with the Latin term substantia.  Origen's term therefore carried with it seeds of semantic and theological confusion.

Origen was still, like his predecessors, faced with the question how to describe the being of the Son and the Spirit in relation to the Father, the source from which all derive. Here he breaks from his predecessors and displays his originality by asserting explicitly the eternal generation and existence of the Son and procession of the Spirit. Similarly, "The Holy Spirit would never have been included in the unity of the Trinity, that is, along with God the unchangeable Father and with his Son, unless he has always been the Holy Spirit."
[10]   In asserting the eternal, distinct existence of the Son and the Spirit, Origen has rejected the applicability to the Trinity of the Stoic distinction of the immanent and expressed Logos. In doing so he also effectively abandoned the approach of the Economic Trinitarianism with which his predecessors had struggled.

The question still persists how to describe the status or being of the eternal Son and Spirit vis-à-vis the Father, the one God.  Origen is one with his predecessors in emphatically rejecting any idea that the Son or the Spirit can be described as creatures, brought into existence from non-existence. Yet, their being is derived from the Father and they exist distinct from the Father. Origen's explanation is that the divinity of the Father, which makes God to be God, is communicated fully and eternally to the Son and the Spirit. In effect, he speaks of the relationship by stating that the Son is begotten from the Father's own substance and the eternity of the Father is eternally and fully communicated to the Son and the Spirit. This communication of divinity is reinforced with allegories such as light proceeding from the sun. He adduces scriptural evidence for Christ as "the image of the invisible God" (Hebrews 1:3, Colossians 1:15, Wisdom 7:25-26).

Origen's discussion of the Holy Spirit is based totally on the biblical revelation. Neither reason or pagan philosophy, he asserts, possess any knowledge of the Spirit of God and he states the Holy Spirit is united in honour and dignity with the Father and the Son, which implies the divinity of the Spirit and equality with the Father and Son. It is a statement which will later form the basis of the creed of Nicaea at the Council of Constantinople in 381. On First Principles he leaves open the question whether this might be a generation and in Commentary of John he maintains that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. Most of his discussion of the Spirit is devoted to the role of the Spirit as the Sanctifier and in doing he was developing the teaching of Irenaeus in retrieving and reintroducing the Pauline concept of the life-giving Spirit.

Origen concludes his discussion of the Trinity in On First Principles with a discussion on the respective roles of the three persons in the Salvation History. Although his theology is clear, difficulties still rise particularly the 'subordinationist' status of the Son, which certain texts seem to imply. Commentators to-day believe that at the time of his writing Origen did not have a precise language to express these concepts and caution against judging Origen's writings in isolation.

Origen's contribution to the developing of the pre-Nicene period is considerable and significant and will exercise an influence on the great debate of the next century. In On First Principles, he states his theology of God as Trinity which down to the present day is subject to varied interpretation. In many respects his dogmatic system was inadequate or erroneous by the standard of the late judgement of the church: in particular he seems to stress the distinctions in the Trinity at the expense of the Unity; to subordinate the Son too definitely; and to limit the activity of the Spirit. But he was a pioneer and Athanasius and the Cappadocians, whose theology as expressed in the great doctrinal formulas owes much to him, have a right to their claim as heirs of Origen.


Bettenson, H. The Early Christian Fathers, London: Oxford University Press, 1956.

Butterworth, G.W. Origen On First Principles, USA: Peter Smith, 1973.

Crouzel, H. Origen, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989.

Ferguson, E. (Editor). Encyclopaedia of Early Christianity, London, St.James Press, 1990.

Fortman, E.J. The Triune God, A Historical Study of the Doctrine of the Trinity, London: 
      Hutchinson, 1972.

Marsh, T. The Triune God: A biblical, historical and theological study, Dublin: The Columba Press,

Rusch, W.G. The Trinitarian Controversey, USA: Fortress Press, 1980.



[1] Butterworth, G.W. Origen on First Principles, USA: Peter Smith, 1973, p.33.

[2] Ferguson, E. (Ed.), Encyclopaedia of Early Christianity, London: Everett Ferguson, 1990, p.911.

[3] T. Marsh, The Triune God, A biblical, historical and theological study, Dublin: Columba Press, 1994, p.68-69.

[4] E. Ferguson, op.cit., p.913.

[5] W.G.Rusch, The Trinitarian Controversy, USA: Fortress Press, 1980, p.12.

[6] H.Crouzel, Origen Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989, p.182-185.

[7] T.Marsh, op.cit. p.68.

[8] H.Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers, London: Oxford Press, 1956, p.329-330.

[9] ibid., p.84.

[10] ibid.

[11] Bettenson, H. op.cit., p.29-30.

Nithyananda Augustine Nathan is studying within the Bachelor of Theology Degree Course at McAuley Campus and is presently in his second year.