I’m currently reading some essays from a book titled Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy. Each essay is written by a different author and covers a different subject. I have long been interested in the Latter Day Saints and particularly their concept of the “Great Apostasy” – i.e., the idea that early Christianity fell almost immediately into decline and (as it typically goes), with the death of the last Apostle, Christianity ceased to have a priesthood or authority. This decline narrative isn’t unique to the LDS, but the way they employ it is interesting.
One of the essays I have read is by Lincoln Blumell, a professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University. He notes in his essay that:
it may be noted that the term Trinity (Grk. τριάς; Lat. trinitas) is not used with any technical meaning, as it would be in subsequent centuries, to define and circumscribe the relationship existing among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (“Rereading the Council of Nicaea and Its Creed,” p. 197)
He points to Clement of Alexandria in the footnote and admits that Clement does use the phrase ἁγία τριάς in Book IV of the Stromateis, but there it refers to the trinity of “faith, hope, and love” from 1 Cor 13.13. This is true indeed. However, Clement also uses the phrase in Book V of the very same book to discuss the actual Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The opening of the 14th chapter of the 5th book indicates that Clement is going to demonstrate how the Greeks borrowed heavily from and misinterpreted Hebrew wisdom. He writes,
τὰ δ’ ἑξῆς <προσ>αποδοτέον καὶ τὴν ἐκ τῆς βαρβάρου φιλοσοφίας Ἑλληνικὴν κλοπὴν σαφὲστερον ἤδη παραστατὲον.
Now it must be shown with greater clarity the Greek plagiarism of the philosophy of the Barbarians (Hebrews).
Then, in 5.14.103, Clement writes:
οὑκ ἄλλως ἔγωγε ἐξακούω ἤ τὴν ἁγίαν τριάδα μηνύεσθαι. τρίτον μὲν γὰρ εἶναι τὸ ἅγιον πνεῦμα, τὸν υἱὸν δὲ δεύτερον, δι’ οὗ “πάντα ἐγένετο” κατὰ βούλησιν τοῦ πατρός.
I understand it [the subject of the passage from Plato] to be nothing other than the Holy Trinity, for the third is the Holy Spirit, the second the Son, the one through whom “all things came to be” according to the will of the Father.
Dr. Blumell’s footnote, quoted in part below, seems misleading:
Similarly, Clement of Alexandria is the first to use the phrase “holy trinity/triad” (ἁγία τριάς) but has it refer to the attributes of “faith, hope, and love” when discussing 1 Corinthians 13:13.
Clement indeed does use it to refer to the triad found in 1 Cor 13, but the footnote seems to imply this is the only time he uses it. This is clearly wrong, as demonstrated here. Perhaps this isn’t the sort of “technical language” Blumell is discussing, but I’m not sure exactly what he means by the phrase. Clement refers to the Word being God repeatedly throughout his works, though he does distinguish Him from the Father. However, every good Trinitarian does. Blumell makes another point here that seems unclear – he says that many of the Fathers in the second and third centuries “regarded Jesus as subordinate to and distinct from the Father.” (p. 197). With respect to subordinationism, it is true among some, though not as many, I think, as often stated (e.g. I think Origen’s “subordinationism” is totally overblown in the secondary literature). But as said above – every Trinitarian today thinks the Word is not the Father.
At any rate, I’m not trying to impose a post-4th century Trinitarianism on the 2nd century, but it’s not as dire as Blumell is making it out to be. There is reference to the Trinity long before Nicaea and the word is used to discuss the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.