Mosaic from the Papal basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, c. 5th century
In our previous post, we found that the earliest understanding of the story of the Hospitality of Abraham was that the three visitors were angels. It didn’t take long for interpretation of this story to develop.
Saint Justin expresses an alternative view in his Dialog with Trypho. Trypho believes, as do his contemporary Jewish brethren, that God spoke to Abraham immediately prior to the appearance of the three visitors and that the visitors were merely angels. Justin argues directly from the Scriptures “that one of the three, who is both God and Lord, and ministers to Him who is in the heavens, is Lord of the two angels.”1 Justin understands the central figure of the triad to be the Son of God and those accompanying him to be angels. Saint Irenaeus corroborates Justin’s position, asserting that “two of the three were angels; but one was the Son of God…”2
Though Novatian apostatized, he provides witness to the fact that Justin’s view on Abraham’s visitation persisted in the third century. In his Treatise on the Trinity he writes, “It was not the Father, then, who was a guest with Abraham, but Christ. Nor was it the Father who was seen then, but the Son; and Christ was seen.”3
Saint Ephraim the Syrian provides fourth century confirmation of the Christological understanding of the three persons. In his commentary on Genesis he explains, “Therefore, the Lord, who had just appeared to him at the door of the tent, now appeared to Abraham clearly in one of the three.”4
While the earliest view may have been purely angelological, the bulk of the patristic witness up to this point seems to have been consistently Christological. The Church’s understanding of this theophany seems to begin evolving later in the fourth century as both Saints Ambrose and Augustine begin to see this triad as a type of the Holy Trinity.
Saint Ambrose explicitly recognizes that the appearance of the three is a type. He also perceives Trinitarian significance in the cardinalities of both the sacrifice and the gifts offered to the three.
Abraham… saw the Trinity in a type… beholding Three he worshipped One, and preserving the distinction of the Persons, yet addressed one Lord, he offered to Three the honour of his gift, while acknowledging one Power… and so he sees Three, but worships the Unity. He brings forth three measures of fine meal, and slays one victim, considering that one sacrifice is sufficient, but a triple gift; one victim, an offering of three.5
Saint Augustine followed his mentor in a similar vein, asserting more resolutely that the presence of God in the three visitors was typological. Justin had earlier argued that one of the three was Christ as evidenced by the fact that Abraham addressed the three as one. Augustine argues, specifically countering Justin’s argument, that no particular person of the three was Christ, but all three were angels. He observes that the same phenomenon occurred when Lot addressed only two as one while the third remained with Abraham. Augustine supports an iconic presence, arguing that:
This makes it much more credible that both Abraham in the three men and Lot in the two recognized the Lord, addressing Him in the singular number, even when they were addressing men… Yet there was about them something so excellent, that those who showed them hospitality as men could not doubt that God was in them as He was wont to be in the prophets…6
In our next post, we will examine a more refined expression of this understanding in the writings of Saints Cyril and Maximus.
1 Justin Martyr, ‘Dialog with Trypho’, trans. Messrs. Dods and Reith, in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.iv.lvi.html) , ed. Philip Schaff, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College, ch. 56.
2 Peter Kirby. “A Discourse in Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching,” in Early Christian Writings (http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/demonstrationapostolic.html) .
3 Novatian, ‘A Treatise of Novatian Concerning the Trinity,’ trans. Rev. Robert Ernest Wallis, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf05.vi.iii.xix.html) , ed. Philip Schaff, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College, ch. 18.
4 Saint Ephraim the Syrian, ‘Selected Prose Works,’ trans. Edward G. Matthews, Jr. and Joseph P. Amar, in The Fathers of the Church, ed. Kathleen McVey (Catholic Univ of Amer Pr 1994), v. 91, s. 15, pars. 1, p. 158.
5 Saint Ambrose of Milan, ‘Selected Works and Letters,’ trans. The Rev. H. De Romestin, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, volume 10, (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf210.iv.iii.iii.html#iv.iii.iii-p203) , ed. Philip Schaff, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College, pars. 96.
6 Saint Augustine, ‘The City of God,’ trans. Rev. Marcus Dods, D.D., in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 1, Volume 2 (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf102.iv.XVI.29.html) , ed. Philip Schaff, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College, Book 16, ch. 29.