The life of the early Church was filled with debate and at times outright disagreement regarding the relationship between God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The earliest history of the Church is found in the book of the New Testament that we call The Acts of the Apostles. The video that each of you in the Confirmation class has been given, The Life of Jesus Christ, is based on the Gospel of Luke. Many but not all, believe that the Luke who wrote this Gospel was a Doctor and a travelling companion of St. Paul. The beginning of the Gospel is addressed to “Theophilus” (Luke 1:3) which means “friend of God.” Theophilus may have been a person of high standing as Luke uses the term “most excellent” but it may have simply referred to a very faithful Christian. Some have speculated that in a time of persecution if an early Christian was caught with this book he or she might be able to say it wasn’t theirs – it clearly belonged to someone else – that is, someone called Theophilus. When you read the beginning of Acts (Acts 1:1) what similarity do you notice?
In his writings Luke describes the beginnings of Christianity from the earliest moments of Jesus’ life through his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension and on to the early history of the Church. He ends his Gospel with Jesus telling the disciples to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Very early in The Acts of the Apostles (2: 1ff) Luke describes the disciples receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.
Most also believe that Luke was a Gentile – that is, someone who was not Jewish. This may help to explain why his writings emphasize the concern Jesus had for those whom others ignored, disliked or mistreated. It was in this gift of the Holy Spirit that Christians began to deepen their understanding of God and discern that they experienced God in three ways. God the Father came to be understood as the creator and sustainer of the Universe. God, the Son, that is Jesus, came to be seen as God becoming human and redeeming people that is, overcoming the consequences of sin and our separation from God. God, the Holy Spirit, came to be understood as the way in which God empowers us and gives us those skills (gifts) that we need to do God’s work.
It is this understanding of God that led to the concept of the Holy Trinity – God in three persons. It was not new. Matthew and John both refer to the Holy Spirit in their Gospels. Luke very clearly refers to it in Acts and Paul refers to it in his letters. But how did the God of the Old Testament referred to as the Father by Jesus, Jesus himself and the Holy Spirit work together? It was in the course of the struggle to understand this that led to some of the debates in the early Church that the Emperor Constantine wanted to see resolved at the Council of Nicea. The following video talks about this.
As the video points out the Church would continue to refine its’ understanding of the Trinity and it is still the source of debate today.
As Anglicans we consider three creeds to be important. The third is the Creed of St. Athanasius. This creed may be found on page 695 in the Canadian 1959 Book of Common Prayer that we have talked about in Confirmation class and which we use in our Parish for Morning Prayer. This creed is rarely said but is formative in our understanding of the Trinity. It is unlikely that St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (Egypt) wrote it but he was such a staunch defender of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity it was ascribed to him. Athanasius actually played a leading role at the Council of Nicea when he was 27 years old and at the age of 30 began serving as Archbishop of Alexandria for the next 45 years.