You are here

Chapter 2. The Historical Roots of Trinitarianism: Constantine and Nicaea

Chapter 2

The Historical Roots of Trinitarianism: Constantine and Nicaea

A basic definition of the Trinity

Even among those who uphold the doctrine of the Trinity, few know anything about it beyond the basic “God in three per­sons” formula. Even fewer know about the histo­rical events that culmin­ated in the creedal form­ulation of trinita­rianism.

Most churches regard trinitarianism as the corn­er­stone of their faith, yet surprisingly few churches teach the Trinity to the lay people in depth, pro­bably because a proper understand­ing of trinitarianism will create object­ions to the doctrine. The first thing the people will notice is the lack of biblical support and the absence of logical cohesion.

Since we will be looking at the historical roots of trinitar­ianism in this chapter and the “four pillars of trinitarianism” in the next few chap­ters, it is only right that we gain a basic under­standing of what the Trinity is. The following definit­ion of the Trinity is repre­sent­ative of how it is explained by trinitarians, and adheres to the trinita­rian language used in definit­ions given by trini­tarians, some of whom we will cite.

For the meanings of English words, we consult two dictionaries: The American Heritage Diction­ary of the English Language (5th full edition) and Oxford Dictionary of English (3rd edition), abbreviated AHD and Oxford, respectively.

The following is a point-by-point explanation of the Trinity with a few explanatory notes. According to trinitarianism:

  • There is one and only one God.
  • God subsists in three persons.
  • Note: The word “subsist” is unfamiliar to most people, but it is commonly used in trinitarian writing to mean “to exist, be” (AHD).
  • The three persons are: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit.
  • Each is fully God.
  • The three are coequal and coeternal.
  • The three are distinct from each other, yet are not three Gods.
  • God is not God except as Father, Son, and Spirit—the three together.
  • Note: Trinitarians often use the term “Godhead” to refer to the triune God (AHD defines “Godhead” as “the Christian God, especially the Trinity”). One reason for the trinitarian use of the term “Godhead” is that in trinitarianism, God is not a person.
  • God is three persons, but is only one “being” or “essence”.
  • Note: Although the word “being” usually refers to a human being, trinitarians use it in the sense of “one’s basic or essential nature” (AHD, similarly Oxford).
  • Note: Although the word “person” usually means a human person, in trinita­rian language it usually refers to a divine person (e.g., “God in three persons”).
  • Note: Trinitarians often use the Greek word hypostasis as an approximate equivalent of “person”. Hence God is three hypostases (three persons).
  • Note: The three hypostases—Father, Son, and Spirit—share one ousia (essence or substance). Hence trinitarians speak of three hypostases in one ousia (three persons in one substance).
  • Note: From ousia comes homoousios (of one essence or substance), which is historically the key term in trinitarian­ism because it is this term that supposedly makes trinitarianism “monotheistic”.
  • Note: Because the three persons are of one substance, they are said to be “consubstantial”.
  • By incarnation the second person of the Godhead—namely, the eternally preexistent God the Son—acquired a human nature and took on God-man existence as Jesus Christ, who now, as one person, possesses both a divine nature and a human nature, and is both fully God and fully man through the “hypostatic union” (of Christ’s two natures, divine and human, in one person or hypostasis).

This definition is complete in the sense that any further dis­cuss­ion on the Trinity is funda­ment­ally an elabo­ration on these bas­ic points, e.g., how the three hypo­stases relate to one another, or how they have diff­erent roles in salvation history (the economic Trinity), or how Christ’s divine nature re­lates to his human nature (debate over this last question had resulted in years of bitter conflict with­in trinita­rian­ism).

Anyone who reads the formal or techni­cal literature on the Trinity will soon discover that it tends to use Greek and Latin terms (or their equivalent English terms), and is imbued with neo-Platonic and other philo­sophical con­cepts. These generate more con­fusion than illum­inat­ion on how the three persons can be one God. We will encounter a few of these concepts in this book, such as the concept of communicatio idiomatum.

Our basic definition of the Trinity is based on dozens of definit­ions given by trinita­rian authorities, both Protestant and Catho­lic, includ­ing the fol­lowing six definitions (which can be skipped on a first read­ing). We in­clude a seventh statement, on the incarnation.

“The Christian doctrine of God, according to which he is three per­sons in one substance or essence.” (New Diction­ary of Theology, “Trinity”)

“The trinity of God is defined by the Church as the belief that in God are three persons who subsist in one nature. The belief as so defined was reached only in the 4th and 5th centuries AD and hence is not explicitly and formally a biblical belief.” (Dictionary of the Bible, Father John L. McKenzie, “Trinity”)

“The term designating one God in three persons. Although not itself a biblical term, ‘the Trinity’ has been found a con­ven­ient de­sign­ation for the one God self-revealed in Scripture as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It signifies that within the one essence of the God­head we have to distin­guish three ‘per­sons’ who are neither three gods on the one side, nor three parts or modes of God on the other, but coequally and coeter­nally God.” (Evangel­ical Dictionary of Theology, “Trinity”)

“The term ‘Trinity’ is not a Biblical term, and we are not using Bib­lical lan­guage when we define what is expressed by it as the doctrine that there is one only and true God, but in the unity of the Godhead there are three coeternal and coequal Persons, the same in sub­stance but dis­tinct in subsist­ence.” (B.B. Warfield, ISBE, “Trinity”)

“The Trinity is the term employed to signify the central doc­trine of the Christian religion—the truth that in the unity of the Godhead there are Three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, these Three Persons being truly distinct one from another. Thus, in the words of the Athanasian Creed: ‘the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spi­rit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God.’ In this Trinity of Persons the Son is begotten of the Father by an eternal gen­eration, and the Holy Spirit pro­ceeds by an eternal procession from the Father and the Son. Yet, notwith­stand­ing this differ­ence as to origin, the Persons are co-eternal and co-equal: all alike are uncreated and om­ni­potent.” (The Catholic Encyclope­dia, “The Blessed Trinity,” under “The Dogma of the Trinity”)

“It is time to lay down a basic, fundamental definition of the Tri­nity. But we need a short, succinct, accurate definit­ion to start with. Here it is: Within the one Being that is God, there exists eternally three coequal and coeternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit … When speaking of the Trinity, we need to realize that we are talking about one what and three who’s. The one what is the Being or essence of God; the three who’s are the Father, Son, and Spirit.” (The Forgotten Trinity, James R. White, pp.26-27)

“[The incarnation is] the act whereby the eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, without ceasing to be what he is, God the Son, took into union with himself what he before that act did not poss­ess, a hum­an nature, ‘and so He was and continues to be God and man in two distinct na­tures and one person, forever’”. (Evangelical Diction­ary of Theology, “Incarna­tion”; the words in single quotation marks are cited by EDT from the Westminster Shorter Catechism).

Homoousios has no biblical support, and is rejected by Luther

The word homoousios (“of one substance”) is historically the key term in trinitarian­ism because it is this term or its con­cept that, on account of the word “one,” gives trinitarianism some semblance of monotheism. The early trinitarian view that homoousios is “the found­ation of ortho­doxy” (Victor­inus) is shared by modern trinita­rians, yet the word homo­ousios itself is found nowhere in the Bible! That it has no biblical basis is noted by a lexical auth­or­ity, New Inter­na­tion­al Dic­tionary of New Testament Theology (NIDNTT, ed. Colin Brown, arti­cle God > The Trinity > NT).

The fol­lowing excerpt from this article cites Karl Barth who, despite being a trinitarian, concedes that the doctrine of the Trinity is not found in the Bible. The excerpt has two levels of quotation. For the convenience of the reader, I put Barth’s words in boldface in order to separate them from the surrounding words of NIDNTT:

The NT does not contain the developed doctrine of the Trin­ity. [Barth says:] “The Bible lacks the express de­claration that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are of equal essence and there­fore in an equal sense God himself. And the other express declara­tion is also lacking, that God is God thus and only thus, i.e., as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These two express declar­ations, which go beyond the witness of the Bible, are the twofold content of the Church doctrine of the Trinity” (Karl Barth, CD, I, 1, 437). It also lacks such terms as trinity … and homoousios which featured in the Creed of Nicea (325).

In this remarkable statement, Barth concedes that the two main tenets of trinitarianism are absent in the Bible. And since homoousios is not a biblical term (as noted by NIDNTT), it comes as no surprise that strong ob­jections to this term have come from the ranks of trinitar­ians. Sure enough, Martin Luther, a trinitarian, vehe­mently rejected homoousios for being an unbiblical term, going so far as to “hate” it. The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity (p.151) quotes Luther as saying, “Our adversaries … are fanatics about words because they want us to dem­onstrate the truth of the trinitarian article … by asking us to assent to the term homo­ousios”. The Cambridge Companion goes on to say that “trinitar­ian terms such as homoou­sios are for Luther a ‘stammering’ and ‘babbling’”.

Luther rejects homoousios even more vehement­ly in a state­ment quoted in Adolf Harnack’s seven-volume History of Dogma:

[Luther] declared such a term as homoousios to be un­allow­able in the strict sense, because it represents a bad state of things when such words are invented in the Christian sy­stem of faith: “… but if my soul hates the word homoousios and I prefer not to use it, I shall not be a heretic; for who will compel me to use it … Although the Arians had wrong views with regard to the faith, they were never­theless very right in this … that they required that no profane and novel word should be allowed to be intro­duced into the rules of faith.” (History of Dogma, vol.7, ch.4, p.225, cf. Erlangen edition of Luther’s works, vol.5, p.505)

Luther’s objection to homoousios for its unbiblical origin was so vehem­ent that he was willing to concede that the heretical Arians were “very right” in re­ject­ing this “profane” word. Luther knew that his objection to the use of homoous­ios would expose him to the charge of heresy because homo­ousios is the found­ation stone of trinitarianism’s dubious claim to mono­theism, and that without homoousios, trinitarianism would immediately descend into expli­cit trithe­ism (the doctrine of three Gods).

A Catholic scholar’s admissions about trinitarianism

Luther comes from the ranks of Protestants but is there similar dissent from the ranks of Catholics? Hans Küng, one of the greatest Catholic theo­logians of the 20th century, wrote a section titled, “No doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament,” in his classic work, Christianity: Essence, History, and Future (p.95ff). Küng firmly rejects trinitar­ianism in his work, but is there a similar dissent­ing voice from the ranks of trinitarian Catholics?

An esteemed Bible diction­ary—one of the most popular for two decades and in its time the most widely used one-vol­ume Bible dictionary ever—was the scholarly Diction­ary of the Bible by Father John L. McKenzie, which, though written by a Catholic, was also widely used by Protestants for its intellectual depth. The following are excerpts from “Trinity,” an article in the dict­ion­ary. In the arti­cle, McKenzie, himself a trini­tarian, makes some observa­tions that are unfavor­able to trinita­rianism, in­clud­ing that: (i) The doctrine of the Trinity was reached only in the 4th and 5th centu­ries, and does not represent bibli­cal belief. (ii) The trinitarian terms used for describ­ing God are Greek philo­so­phical terms rather than biblical terms. (iii) Terms such as “essence” and “substance” were “erroneously” applied to God by early theolo­gians. (iv) The personal reality of the Holy Spirit is uncertain and was a later develop­ment in trinita­rian­ism. (v) The Trinity is a mystery that defies under­stand­ing. (vi) The Trin­ity is not mentioned or foresha­dowed in the Old Testa­ment. Here are some excerpts from his article:

TRINITY. The trinity of God is defined by the Church as the belief that in God are three persons who subsist in one nature. The belief as so defined was reached only in the 4th and 5th centuries AD and hence is not explicitly and form­ally a biblical belief. The trin­ity of persons within the unity of nature is defined in terms of “person” and “nature” which are Greek philosophical terms; actually the terms do not appear in the Bible. The trinitarian definitions arose as the result of long controversies in which these terms and others such as “essence” and “substance” were erron­eously applied to God by some theologians.

. . . . .

The personal reality of the Spirit emerged more slowly than the per­sonal reality of Father and Son, which are personal terms … What is less clear about the Spirit is His personal reality; often He is men­tioned in lang­uage in which His personal reality is not explicit.

. . . . .

… in Catholic belief the Trinity of persons within the unity of na­ture is a mystery which ultimately escapes under­standing; and in no res­pect is it more mysterious than in the relations of the persons to each other.

. . . . .

The OT does not contain suggestions or foreshadowing of the Trinity of persons. What it does contain are the words which the NT employs to express the Trinity of persons such as Father, Son, Word, Spirit, etc.

The Gnostic use of homoousios

Gnosticism is widely regarded as the greatest threat to the life of the early church in the first two centuries. We won’t ex­plain what Gnosticism is (but see Appendix 7 for a brief ex­planation) since it is a standard topic in church his­tories, except to mention that it was a cancerous movement that grew deep roots in the church and nearly killed it. Emin­ent historian Justo L. González says, “Of all these differing interpreta­tions of Christ­ianity, none was as dangerous, nor as close to victory, as was gnostic­ism.” [1]

It will come as a shock to trinitarians that the Gnostics were the first to use the word homoousios. The first person known to have used it was the Gnostic theologian Basilides (2nd century A.D.) who used homoousios to ex­plain his con­cept of a “threefold sonship consubstantial with the god who is not”. [2]

When Gnosticism was at its peak, homoousios had a reput­ation for being a Gnostic term. Well before the Council of Nicaea in 325, the church fathers were already aware of the Gnostic use of homoousios. R.P.C. Hanson’s auth­oritat­ive work, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, says on p.191: “Hippo­lytus quotes Gnos­tics as using the word homoousios … Clement of Alexandria also uses the word in quot­ations of Gnostic authors, as does Irenaeus … Ori­gen simi­larly uses the word only when he is quoting Gnostic heretics.” The academic authority of R.P.C. Hanson’s work is well known to all church historians and patristics scholars.

Although Gnosticism was in decline by the third or fourth century, it had left some of its roots in the church as seen in the adoption of homoou­sios. A central con­cept in Gnostic­ism is the eman­ation of divine beings, the lesser from the greater. Hence it comes as no surprise that at Nicaea it was decreed on pain of anath­ema that the second person eman­ates from the first, much as light emanates from a source of light. Nicaean formulations such as “God of God, Light of Light” and other lofty descriptions are nothing more than direct echoes of Greek philoso­phy and religion.

Trinitarianism or tritheism?

Trinitarianism is the doctrine of one God in three persons whereas tri­theism is the doctrine of three Gods. Tritheism is a special case of poly­theism, the belief in many Gods (e.g., Hinduism). Trinita­rians vehemently deny that trinitarianism is tri­theism, yet the two are intrinsi­cally indis­tinguish­able. To put the matter plainly, trinitarian­ism is trithe­ism that denies it is tritheis­tic.[3]

In trying to make sense of trinitarianism, the immediate problem that we en­counter is its use of double­speak, in assigning two different mean­ings to the word “God” and then switching back and forth between them, usually to evade logical dilemmas. There is the first sense of “God” in which God is not God except as Father, Son, and Spirit—the three together. This formul­at­ion is de­signed as a means of avoid­ing explicit tritheism, and is one of the two foundation­al tenets of trini­tarian­ism according to Karl Barth.

But there is a second (and con­tradictory) sense of “God” in which each of the three persons of the Trinity is indiv­idually and fully God: “So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God” (Athanasian Creed). Trinitarians say that each person is “fully God” (White, Grudem, Bowman) or “fully and complete­ly God” (ESV Study Bible, p.2513).

The historically important Fourth Lateran Council (1215, Rome) is even clearer: “each is God, whole and entire”. In other words, the Father is God whole and entire; the Son is God whole and entire; the Spirit is God whole and entire. Yet the three together are one God whole and entire.

 

In trinitarian­ism, each person of the triune Godhead, whether the Father or the Son or the Spirit, is fully God, coeternally God, and coeq­ually God, so that trinit­arians can and do speak of “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit” in language that ascribes whole deity to each. Whole deity of each is maintained even if we reverse the word order within each of the three clauses: “the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God” (Athana­sian Creed).

Trinitarianism posits that each person—whether the Father or the Son or the Spirit—is “fully” God (“each is God, whole and entire,” Fourth Later­an Council). Moreover, trin­ita­rianism assigns sufficient dis­tinct­ion between the persons such that the Father is not to be con­fused with the Son, nor the Son with the Spirit, nor the Father with the Spirit. The Athana­sian Creed says, “For there is one Person of the Father, an­other of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit”. To state the obvious, the distinction in persons is seen in the fact that trinitarians speak of “three persons”.

Since the three are each “fully” God yet are three distinct persons, it would be seman­tically correct to say that they are three Gods (tritheism). The force and clar­ity and obviousness of this argu­ment is noted, yet its val­idity is rejected, by the Athanasian Creed: “And yet they are not three Gods, but one God”.

This clear violation of semantic sense for which the Athan­a­sian Creed offers no explan­ation apart from dogmatic denial, must be re­jected unless it is allowed by mitigating factors such as explicit Scriptural support. But does the Bible really teach the three-in-one trinitarian form­ulation? Many trini­ta­rians admit that it is absent in the Scriptures. For exam­ple, Dr. Charles C. Ryrie, author of Ryrie Study Bible, and longtime professor of systematic theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, makes a shocking admiss­ion:

But many doctrines are accepted by evangelicals as being clearly taught in the Scripture for which there are no proof texts. The doc­trine of the Trinity furnishes the best exam­ple of this. It is fair to say that the Bible does not clearly teach the doctrine of the Trinity. In fact, there is not ev­en one proof text, if by proof text we mean a verse or passage that ‘clearly’ states that there is one God who exists in three persons … The above illustrations prove the fallacy of con­clu­ding that if something is not proof texted in the Bible we cannot clearly teach the results … If that were so, I could never teach the doctrine of the Trinity or the deity of Christ or the deity of the Holy Spirit. (Basic Theology, pp. 89-90)

Millard Erickson, well-known trinitarian and specialist on trinita­rian doc­trine, and the author of Christian Theology, writes:

[The Trinity] is not clearly or explicit­ly taught anywhere in Script­ure, yet it is widely regarded as a central doctrine, indispensable to the Christian faith. In this regard, it goes con­trary to what is vir­tually an axiom of biblical doctrine, namely, that there is a direct correla­tion between the script­ural clarity of a doctrine and its cruciality to the faith and life of the church. (God in Three Persons: A Contem­porary Inter­pretation of the Trinity, p.11)

The standard way of explaining away the tri­theistic under­pinnings of trinita­rian­ism—namely, by positing that the three persons share one essence (homoousios)—is uncon­vin­cing. It’s not only because the word homoousios is not found in the Bible, but also because a com­mon essence characterizes tri­the­ism as much as it does trin­it­arianism! Whether we speak of a unity of three Gods (tritheism) or a unity of three persons in one God (trinitarian­ism), the three share the one sub­stance or essence of deity. Applying the concept of “one essence” to three persons who are each “fully” God does not make them “one God”; it only makes them a perfect union of three full Gods. Hence the concept of homo­ousios (one in sub­stance)—whose first known use was by the Gnostic theolo­gian Basilides, and which was later adopted at Nicaea against the objections of some bishops from both camps—offers no help to trinita­rian­ism but in fact draws unwelcome attent­ion to trinita­rianism’s affin­ity with trithe­ism!

The tritheistic underpinnings of trinitarianism come out in many books such as James R. White’s The Forgotten Trin­ity, a book endorsed by J.I. Packer, Gleason Archer, Norman Geisler, and John MacArthur, indi­cating its acceptance among leading evan­gelicals.

White first gives what he calls a “short, succinct, accurate” definition of the Trinity: “Within the one Being that is God, there exists eternally three coequal and coeternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” (p.26) Here White makes a distinction between “Being” and “per­son” such that God is three persons yet one Being. To explain what this means, White says:

When speaking of the Trinity, we need to realize that we are talking about one what and three who’s. The one what is the Being or essence of God; the three who’s are the Father, Son, and Spirit.

Hence trin­itarian­ism’s claim to monothe­ism is based on the concept of “one Being” or “one essence” rather than “one person”. In his attempt to give trinita­rian­ism some sem­blance of mono­theism, White is forced to make God a what, not a who—which is a blasphemous description of God. The God of trinita­rianism is techni­cally an “it” rather than a “He”.

If you take this to mean that the trinitarian God is not a person, you are cor­rect. Tertullian says: “God is the name for the substance” (see J.N.D. Kelly in Early Christian Doctrines, p.114). C.S. Lewis, a wholehearted trinita­rian, says: “Christian theology does not believe God to be a person. It believes Him to be such that in Him a trinity of persons is consistent with a unity of Deity. In that sense it believes Him to be some­thing very different from a person.” (Christian Reflect­ions, p.79).

In the strange logic of trinitarianism, the mere use of “one” as in “one substance” is already enough to qualify trinit­arianism to be monothe­ism. This is what we might call “monotheism by vocabulary”. The only way for trinitar­ians to obtain “one God” from the notion of “one substance” is to de­fine God as a substance (Tertullian), which is why trinitar­ians such as James White do not hesitate to say that God is a “what”.

Just as strange, the tritheistic con­cept of “three per­sons who are each fully God” (note the crucial word “fully”) does not, in the view of trinitar­ians, dis­qualify trinitarianism from being monotheism. This is trying to have it both ways, to have mono­theism and trithe­ism, to have God as one and God as three, to have one God and three who are each fully God. In the final analysis, the convoluted logic of trinitar­ianism is the predictable conse­quence of an at­tempt to prove, almost math­ematically, that three equals one or that 1/3 equals one.

White continues: “The Father is not 1/3 of God, the Son 1/3 of God, the Spirit 1/3 of God. Each is fully God, coequal with the others, and that eter­nally.” This statement is problematic because if God is three persons, then anyone who is “fully God”—note the word “fully” by which trinitarians mean God whole and entire—would have to be all three persons at the same time or else he would be partially God (unless we change the definition of “God” using double­speak).

The problem runs deeper than that, for if Jesus is not all three persons at the same time, he would not be God at all, for God must always exist as three persons or else we would be breaking the “monotheism” of trinitarian­ism such that it descends into tritheism. White rejects the idea that Jesus is one-third of God, yet it cannot be denied that Jesus is one-third of the Trinity in the sense of being one of three persons of the Trinity, which trinita­rians equate with God.

White’s as­sertion that the three are each “fully God” is but a naked as­sert­ion of pure and classic tritheism. But trinitarians vehem­ently deny that their doc­trine is tri­theistic, and they do this by insisting that God is not God through the Father alone, or the Son alone, or the Spirit alone, but by all three toget­her. This is one of the two foundational tenets of trinitarianism (Barth) and is expli­citly stated in the following words of Millard Erick­son, a promi­nent spokesman for trin­itarianism:

God could not exist simply as Father, or as Son, or as Holy Spirit. Nor could he exist as Father and Son, or as Father and Spirit, or as Son and Spirit, without the third of these persons in that given case. Further, none of these could exist without being part of the Trin­ity… None has the power of life within itself alone. Each can only exist as part of the Triune God. (God in Three Persons, p.264)

Erickson’s statement that “none has the power of life with­in itself alone” is a most shocking way of describing someone who is supposed to be fully God (and, in the case of the Father, directly contradicts John 5:26 which says that “the Father has life in him­self”). Equally shocking is the statement, “none of these could exist with­out being part of the Trinity”. Erickson is not merely saying that God is ontolo­gically triune, but that each person has no power of existence on his own outside the framework of the Trinity! That state­ment is probably designed as a means of avoiding expli­cit tritheism.

Erickson’s puzzling statement—that “none of these could exist with­out being part of the Trinity”—effectively destroys what it means to be God. If Jesus (or the Father or the Spirit) is fully God, His existence will not depend on any­one else, for God “is”. God is the “I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be”. Nothing can deter­mine or limit God’s existence. Yet in trinitar­ianism, the ul­tim­ate ontological truth is not God himself but a triune frame­work that governs the existence of three persons, none of whom can exist outside the Trinity (Millard Erickson). That is why the triune God is not a “person” (C.S. Lewis) but a “what” (James White).

Erickson’s statement that “God could not exist simply as Father, or as Son, or as Holy Spirit” directly contradicts the trinitarian assertion that the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God, and the Spirit is fully God.

The stark reality is that Erickson is trying to do the impossible task of ex­plain­ing trinita­rianism, a doctrine that has never been explained coher­ently for two thousand years. That is why trinitarianism is often said to be a mystery (cf. White, p.173, “a mystery beyond the compre­hension of man”). Trinitarianism remains a mystery up to the 21st century because trinitarians still cannot explain coherently how three persons, each of whom is “God whole and entire,” can toge­ther be one God. This accounts for the predict­able retreat into “mystery” even by a brilliant mind as Augustine’s.

But that is not the biblical meaning of “mystery”. In the Bible, a my­stery is not some­thing illogical or beyond comprehension, but some­thing that is unex­plained only because we are missing some crucial informa­tion. This is true even in secular usage, e.g., the mystery of how the pyramids were built, or a my­stery being investi­gated by Sherlock Holmes (but once he solves it, it is no long­er incom­prehensible).

Paul says that we understand a mystery as clear as light when God re­veals it to us: “to bring to light for every­one what is the plan of the mystery hid­den for ages in God who created all things” (Eph.3:9). Paul aspires to “de­clare the my­stery of Christ” not incomprehen­sibly but “that I may make it clear” (Col.4:3-4), a statement that can hardly be true of the trinitarian mystery.

In trinitarianism, a mystery remains a mystery even after an explanation has been given for it! But not so in the Bible. The following Bible diction­ary gets it right when it says that a mystery is not something “for which no an­swer can be found” but some­thing that “once revealed is known and under­stood”:

But whereas “mystery” may mean, and in contemporary usage often does mean, a secret for which no answer can be found, this is not the connota­tion of the term mystērion in classical and biblical Gk. In the NT mystērion signifies a secret which is being, or even has been, re­vealed, which is also divine in scope, and needs to be made known by God to men through his Spirit. In this way the term comes very close to the NT word apokalypsis, “revelation”. Mystēr­ion is a temp­orary secret, which once revealed is known and under­stood, a secret no longer. (New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed., “Mystery”)

In fact the unbiblical teaching of Sabellianism or modalism (which says that God, in salvation history, is mani­fested in three modes, Father, Son, and Spirit, similar to how H2O can be liquid, ice, or vapor) is infinitely more logical than trinita­rian­ism. That is because modal­ism is free of self-contra­diction, as is tritheism. If trin­ita­rian­ism is to be logic­al and self-consistent, it can only be so in the form of modalism or outright tri­theism, both of which are as unbiblical as trini­tarian­ism.

Tritheism, being a special case of polytheism, would be ex­pected to bor­row from the language of polythe­ism. Sure enough, the famously polytheis­tic religion of Hinduism would occasion­ally speak of the “divine essence” or “divine sub­stance” [4]—a fact that further exposes trinitarianism’s affin­ity with tritheism and polytheism.

The trinitarian term “divine substance” is also used in polytheistic Greek mytho­logy [5] and in Gnosticism, [6] yet is notably absent from the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures!

In my days as a good trinitarian, I believed in a tripartite God­head. Be­cause we trinitarians believed in three coequal persons, we could not speak properly of one God but of one Godhead. For some strange rea­son, we could not speak of three Gods even though each of these divine “persons” (as trin­ita­rians also call them) are fully and coequally God. There is every right to speak of three Gods—not just three persons—in the Trinity who are said to be one in “sub­stance,” a word derived from the Greek ousia which is used more appropri­ately of material things, but which has been con­scripted into trinitarian use because a better word could not be found. When you start inventing terms such as “trinity” or “God the Son” or “God-man,” you will be forced to invent other terms such as “sub­stance” and impose mean­ings on words such as “God” which are not intended in the Bible.

If “God is spirit” (Jn.4:24), how can God be a substance? In the trinita­rian absurdity, which is not based on biblical proce­dure, the mater­ial con­cept of “substance” is brought in to explain how there can be three persons in the “one” trinitarian God. Common sense tells us that if there are three persons (not just three faces or three heads on one person), each of whom is fully God, then there are three Gods. This is incontrovertible in the laws of syn­tax, seman­tics, and plain language. Yet Christ­ians including my­self have been so befud­dled that we could not see the obvious. The brain­washing power of tradition is fright­ening because it leads to blindness. The spiritual state of the church is just as Jesus put it, “the blind leading the blind,” with the inevit­able con­sequence that both “fall into a pit” (Mt.15:14; Lk.6:39).

May Yahweh God be merciful to those in the church who pursue the truth, and may He grant them what He had promised:

I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them. (Isaiah 42:16, ESV)

Historical Currents: Constantine and Nicaea

How has the doctrine of the Trinity with its use of unbi­blical language and its infusion of Greek philosophical con­cepts such as homo­ousios and hypostasis and eternal gene­ration become the corner­stone doctrine of Christian­ity? The answer is to be found in the historical events of the early church.

Some three hundred years after the time of Jesus, the Gentile church had by then made him an object of worship. The divine Jesus, called God the Son, was a creation of the Gen­tile (non-Jewish) church that had assumed for itself the right to elevate Jesus from being man to being God. Deified men were familiar to the Gentile world of the day; indeed the Greeks had many gods who appeared all too human, and the Romans worshipped as gods many of their own emperors, includ­ing Constantine himself.

The way the Gentile church deified Jesus reminds us of what Jesus said about the way some had been treating John the Baptist: “they did with him whatever they wished” (Mt.17:12). With sim­ilar brazen­ness, the churches did with Jesus whatever they wished. Did they really think that Jesus would have con­sented to their “lifting him up” to be God (cp. John 8:28, where “lifted up” refers instead to his being lifted up on the cross)?

From that time on, the biblical Jesus faded from the Gen­tile church in matters of faith and practice, and the one who took his place was the God-man Jesus Christ of trinitarian­ism.

We must not be quick to assume that the intentions of the church lead­ers were wrong when they did this. In deifying Jesus, they undoubtedly thought that what they were doing is right. But good intent­ions do not just­ify wrong actions, violence, idolatry, or unbiblical doctrines, as goes the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

The deification of Jesus in 325 and the Spirit in 381

Few Christians know that trinitarianism was not gen­erally accepted in the Christian church until A.D. 381, three and a half centuries after the time of Jesus, in which year the Council of Constantin­ople, convened by the Roman Emperor Theodo­sius I, affirmed that the Holy Spirit is of the same “sub­stance” as the Father and the Son. It was the first such official declar­ation in church history; and by this ecclesia­stical pro­nouncement, the Holy Spirit was declared the third person of the Trinity. Before this happened, there had been no trinity of “consubstan­tial” beings. To speak of a Trinity in the New Testament is therefore ana­chronistic, for the church did not even recognize the Holy Spirit as a part of a trinity until 350 years after the time of Christ.

The formal deification of Jesus took place a half century ear­lier, in 325 at the Council of Nicaea, despite the fact that the New Testa­ment has no clear or straightforward or incon­trover­tible state­ment that Jesus is God. The process of deify­ing Jesus started even earlier, in the latter half of the second century, when bold and script­urally unsus­tainable statements were being made by some Gentile church leaders on the deity of Jesus. The deifi­cation of Jesus then gained currency in the Hellenis­tic Gentile church, during which pro­cess Jesus was being elevated higher and higher to­wards deity, but not without entail­ing much controversy and hostility, even physi­cal violence which was carried out with no appa­rent concern for the dis­gracefulness of such behavior.[7]

The problems with the Council of Nicaea

The ancient city of Constantinople is located within the land of today’s Istanbul, Turkey, whereas the ancient city of Nicaea is located 60 miles away, within today’s Iznik, Turkey. These were Greek-speak­ing cities in the Byzan­tine Empire at the time of Emperor Constantine (born 272, died 337). The city of Constant­inople was founded in 330 by Constantine him­self on the site of the earlier Byzantium. Constant­inople was conquered by the Ottoman Muslims in 1453, and was renamed Istanbul.

In 325, Emperor Constantine, also known as Constantine the Great, brought together the First Council of Nicaea which in its defin­itive Nicene Creed introduced the key word homoousios to declare that Jesus is of the “same substance” (consubstantial) with God the Father and there­fore coequal with Him. With the official deification of Jesus in place, the church now had two Gods (ditheism) or two persons who are coequ­ally one God (bi­nitar­ianism) by virtue of their sharing one substance.

A few decades later, in 381 at the First Council of Constantino­ple, the Holy Spirit was added as the third person to the God­head to formally make God a trinity. The doctrine of three persons in the Godhead, a for­mulation that is poly­theistic rather than mono­theistic, was not viewed as problematic, unbib­lical or heretical by much of the Gentile church, for it was a church that, after all, had long been immersed in a milieu in which poly­theism had taken deep root, and in which Gnostic concepts were familiar to its popul­ace.

In short, the deity of Christ, in terms of his consubstant­iality with the Father, was not officially established until 325, a few months after Constant­ine had become the sole emperor of the Roman empire. Seeing the sectarian conflicts among church leaders over the issue of Christ’s deity, and fearing that this may destabilize the unity of his em­pire, Constantine imme­diately in­structed the Christian bishops to gather at his residence in Nicaea.

He took personal charge of the proceed­ings of this council even though he was not technically a Christian (he was not bap­tized until 12 years later, just shortly before he died). Not being a Christ­ian, he knew little about Christian doctrine, and had to depend on the counsel of one or two Christ­ian advisors. Despite being a non-Christian who lacked a deep understand­ing of Christ­ian doc­trine, he imposed doctrinal unity upon the gathering of some three hundred bishops who represented a multitude of diff­erent—in many cases, irrecon­cila­ble—doctrinal views. He lacked a good know­ledge of Christian teach­ing but as an astute politi­cian, he knew it would be politically expedient to support and establish the stronger elements of this assembly of bishops. The party that favored the full deity of Christ was slightly stronger than the one that did not, even though the majority of bis­hops still be­lieved in the sub­ordina­tion of the Son to the Father. That being the case, it was politically astute of Constantine to sup­port the side that was advocating the deity of Christ. In any case, the deification of Christ was not some­thing that Con­stantine himself would have found objection­able because Roman emperors too were deified, himself in­cluded.

Thus the Council of Nicaea, consisting of some 300 church leaders, as­sumed for itself the authority over all Christen­dom to deify Jesus, declar­ing him God by invoking no authority but its own, not even citing Scripture in support of its creedal declarations. This relatively small group of church lead­ers did with Jesus “as they wished” when they “lifted him up” as God and thereby “crucified the Son of God again” (Heb.6:6). They thought that they were glorifying Jesus by declar­ing him to be of the same substance as God the Creator. But how is a person glorified when he is declared to be what he is not, and then made into an object of idolatry?

The number of bishops at Nicaea cannot be established with certainty. Contemporaneous reports give figures ranging from 220 attend­ees (accord­ing to Eusebius of Caesarea, the most important church historian from the early church) to 318 attendees (Jerome and Rufius; cf. Wikipedia, First Council of Nicaea, “Attendees”). Of the estimated 1,800 bishops of the church at that time, on­ly 300 attended the council, some of whom “were poor­ly enough ac­quainted with Christian theo­logy” (Catholic Encyclope­dia, vol.11, p.44, Nicaea, Councils of). This last observation is clearly a cause for con­cern in regard to making official declar­ations on basic Bible doctrines.

We can draw a few conclusions from these observations. Firstly, only one in six church leaders were present at Nicaea. Given that the council was fully funded by the Emperor who provided for the travel, food, and accommoda­tion expenses of every participant, why were 83% of the bishops ab­sent from the council? (At that time, a bishop was basically a senior church clergy.) Even the bis­hop of Rome, whose office later be­came the Papal office, did not attend the council, but sent a representa­tive there. What kind of authority did this coun­cil act­ually have?

And how do we account for the discrepancies in the reported number of attendees? The figures were provided by bishops who had personally at­tended the council, yet there is a difference of 100 between the highest and lowest estimates. One can only won­der at the council’s reliability in matters of historical observation. Or did some of the bishops attend the meetings inconsistently?

The statement by The Catholic Encyclopedia that some of the bishops had a poor under­standing of Christ­ian teaching leads to the question: How many are “some”? 10? 50? 100? On what basis were they appointed bishops if they were unable to give proper teaching to their own congrega­tions?

Another problem—though not of their own fault—was the dire lack of access to the Script­ures even among the bis­hops. Recognizing this problem, Constantine commissioned Euse­bius of Caesarea to make fifty copies of the Bible.[8] But this imperial decree was issued in 331, which made it far too late to moderate the doctrinal verdicts of Nicaea in 325.

The Nicene Creed

The term “Nicene Creed” is technically ambiguous because it can refer to the historically important creed adopted at the Council of Nicaea in 325 or, more often, the expanded creed adopted at the Council of Con­stantinople in 381. The earlier creed is sometimes called “The Creed of Nicaea”. The later creed of 381, formally known as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed but often simply the Nicene Creed, is more or less the one adopted by trin­ita­rian churches today because it includes the Holy Spirit in a trinity where­as the earlier creed of 325 contains no explicit trin­itarian formulation. [9]

The following is the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 as given in J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Creeds (3rd ed., p.297), a standard work on the early church creeds. For a historical-theological discussion on the creed, see Early Christian Doctrines, chapters 9 and 10, by the same author.

We believe in one God, the Father, almighty,

maker of heaven and earth,

of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,

the only-begotten Son of God,

begotten from the Father before all ages,

light from light, true God from true God,

begotten not made, of one substance with the Father,

through Whom all things came into existence,

Who because of us men and because of our salvation

came down from heaven,

and was incarnate from the Holy Spirit

and the Virgin Mary and became man,

and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,

and suffered and was buried,

and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures

and ascended to heaven,

and sits on the right hand of the Father,

and will come again with glory to judge living and dead,

of whose kingdom there will be no end;

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver,

Who proceeds from the Father,

Who with the Father and the Son is together

worshipped and together glorified,

Who spoke through the prophets;

in one holy Catholic and apostolic church.

We confess one baptism to the remission of sins;

we look for­ward to the resurrection of the dead

and the life of the world to come.

Amen.

Few Christians know anything about trinitarian­ism be­yond the bare fact that it is a doctrine of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit united in one sub­stance as one God. In fact some Christians don’t even know about the one sub­stance, for they simply equate trinitarianism with the idea of Jesus’ deity. But if asked whether trinita­rian­ism is a biblical doc­trine, they would answer with a resounding “yes”. But are they aware that this doc­trine did not be­come a creed until the fourth century? The Catholic scholar, Father John L. McKenzie, says: “the belief that in God are three persons who subsist in one nature … was reached only in the 4th and 5th centuries AD and hence is not explicitly and formally a biblical belief.”

How can a doctrine that arrived some 300 years after Jesus be a biblical doctrine? Or did the doctrine somehow “evolve” from the Bible over a 300-year period, to use the evolution­ary language that is freely applied to many disciplines today? The truth of the matter is that trinitarianism devel­oped in the Gentile Hellenistic church from the latter part of the 2nd century after it had lost most of its connections to the early Jewish church from the middle of the same century. The Gentile church in its deter­min­ation to exalt the man Christ Jesus higher and higher in the direction of deity, indeed towards full equality with God, went through a doctrinal pro­cess that culminated in the formal deifica­tion of Jesus Christ at the Council of Nicaea in 325.



[1] The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day, vol.1, p.58.

[2] Hippolytus in Refutatio omnium haeresium 7:22. See the schol­arly Wikipedia article “Homoousian” cited in Appendix 7 of the pre­sent book (The Gnostic Origins of Homoousios).

[3] Tom Harpur says something pertinent: “You simply cannot find the doc­trine of the Trinity set out anywhere in the Bible. St. Paul has the highest view of Jesus’ role and person, but nowhere does he call him God. Nor does Jesus himself any­where explicitly claim to be the Second Person of the Trinity … This research has led me to believe that the great majority of regular churchgoers are, for all practical purposes, tritheists.” (For Christ’s Sake, p.11).

[4] Klaus Klostemaier, A Concise Ency­clopedia of Hinduism, p.124; Klaus Klos­temaier, A Survey of Hinduism, p.487; Steven Rosen, Ess­en­tial Hinduism, p.193; Sri Swami Sivananda, All About Hinduism, p.134.

[5] Richard Caldwell, The Origin of the Gods, Oxford, p.137.

[6] Jean-Marc Narbonne, Plotinus in Dialogue with the Gnostics, p.39; and Sean Martin, The Gnostics, p.38.

[7] For a history of this pro­tracted con­flict, see Philip Jenkin’s Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christ­ians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years; and Richard Rubenstein’s How Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christian­ity During the Last Days of Rome.

[8] Constantine and the Christian Empire, p.261.

[9] The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed differs slightly in its various forms as adopted by the Lutheran Church, the Catholic Church (from the Latin Rite), the Orthodox churches, the Coptic Orthodox Church, and the Anglican Com­mun­ion. Some of the diff­erences between their respective versions of the Nicene Creed carry over­tones of early theolo­gical disputes, e.g., “and from the Son” appears in some versions of the creed but not in others.

 

 

(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church