Anglican theologian Leonard Hodgson’s 1943 book The Doctrine of the Trinity is creative, insightful, and I think believed by no one. It posits what I call a “three self” theory, what others call a “social” theory. But my purpose here is to relay his insights regarding the approach to monotheism in the first three centuries of Christianity.
…”subordinationism.” That term is used to describe theories current in the monarchian controversies of the third and fourth centuries. Those theories were attempts to secure the unity of the Godhead by regarding one Person as ultimately God in His own right and the others as divine in a secondary or subordinate sense. …only one of the three Persons, the Father, was in patristic times regarded in this way as the real God… [the theory is fundamentally an attempt] to find the unity by treating one of the elements as ultimate and reducing the others to terms of it. (The Doctrine of the Trinity, p. 88, emphases added)
Subordinationism… attempts to preserve the unity by making one Person ultimately the real God and the others divine because of their relation to Him. Hippolytus of Rome was notorious for the subordinationism into which he was driven in his efforts to refute Sabellius. Although in this connection Origen is chiefly memorable for the doctrine of eternal generation by which he freed trinitarian theology from one element in subordinationism, i.e. temporal secondariness, yet other elements remained… ( p. 100, bold added)
The notion that in the Trinity one Person may be the fount or source of being or godhead for another lingered on to be a cause of friction and controversy between the East and the West, and still persists into much Christian theology of to-day. …[But in the divine] unity, there is no room for any trace of subordinationism… the thought of the Father as the Source or Fount of Godhead is a relic of pre-Christian theology which has not fully assimilated Christian revelation. (p. 102, emphases added)
A few quibbles; first “subordinationism” as so defined was also common in the second half of the second century, with all the “logos theologians.” And in the second quote, it is anachronistic to speak of “trinitarian” theology in the early third century. On the last quote, he’s assuming equal divinity as necessary for trinitarianism, which is correct.
But yeah, his basic points are correct – too many big dogs? It’s really one big dog, and two little ones.
Finally, a couple of quotations I disagree with but think are fascinating:
What was needed was that into the place hitherto held in men’s thought by the one God of their faith and worship [i.e. the Father] there should be put the Trinity as a whole. (The Doctrine of the Trinity, p. 101, original emphases)
When you put it this way, you see how breathtakingly bold trinitarian speculations were! How could anything or anyone take the place of the one who, according the New Testament, Peter, John, Paul, and the Lord Jesus himself taught and worshipped as the one true God?
Christianity began as a trinitarian religion with a unitarian theology. The question at issue in the age of the Fathers was whether the religion should transform the theology or the theology stifle the religion. (p. 103, emphasis added)
He’s got this much right – all early Christian theology was unitarian. That’s because Jesus and the apostles taught that, and the ball was not dropped – not in those days.
But in what sense was the “religion” – the practice? – trinitarian? As Hurtado has shown, as far as historical evidence is concerned, Christians always worshipped Jesus. But they simply did not, historians agree, worship the Holy Spirit in the early years, nor the three as one triune God. Were they merely “trinitarian” in that they used some threefold forms of speech, as occasionally in the New Testament, then commonly for baptisms by mid second century? But that practice is wholly consistent with unitarian belief and practice.
I can’t come up with any decent sense in which early Christianity was “trinitarian.” The most one could possibly say, is what more careful trinitarian scholars say, which is that the early theologies “contained the seeds” of trinitarianism – whatever that means!