The Doctrine of the Trinity is very close in idea to various pagan theologies dating back to ancient Babylonian idolatry, but finds its entry into Christianity through adoption of ideas contained in Greek philosophy. (Philo, mentioned above, and others, notably Tertullian.) The earliest record of Trinitarian terminology is found in the writings of Tertullian (c. 220 A.D.), who also wrote, in his "Against Praxeas," that the majority of Christians rejected his ideas as idolatry, holding instead to "the Monarchy," i.e. the doctrine that there is only One Person who is God, that He is a Spirit, and that He became flesh to be the Saviour. The doctrine of the Trinity was codified by the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. to satisfy the demand of Emperor Constantine to reconcile the teachings of Arius and his followers, who denied the Deity of Christ, with the rest of Christianity which held firmly to the exclusive Deity of Jesus Christ. The resulting compromise satisfied neither camp, but became the single issue which determined "orthodoxy" under the rule of Rome.
It is not simple to determine the understanding of "early Trinitarians." First, it is difficult to determine just when there were "early Trinitarians." We can determine when "modern" Trinitarianism came into being, but the designation "early" makes it subject to varying interpretations. (This problem is explained in more detail in problem three, following). Second, it is difficult to determine what anyone in the past understood about anything! We can only look closely at the words they employed to write their doctrines, and try to determine what those words must have meant to them. We can do this linguistic work with the help of the scholars. But that brings us to the third problem: It is in the nature of believers to be anachronistic in their historical research, that is, people tend to read back into history their present day understanding, and attribute it to those they are looking back at, and interpreting their words accordingly. (This simply demonstrates that the Bondage of Belief is the strongest bondage known to men. It is possible to believe a lie, but you cannot know a lie. Only truth can be known. And it is only by knowing the truth that we can be freed from the Bondage of Belief.) So, a Trinitarian will see in the historical accounts evidence of his own belief, and so will the Oneness believer. Intellectual honesty is more rare among theologians than it should be! However, it is not impossible to be intellectually honest, and to avoid anachronistic errors. Fourth, there is the problem of the nature of historical evidence. All histories either have developed, or will develop, through a three-fold process:
- they begin as the biased account of the winner of a conflict;
- they undergo revisionist alterations when that winner no longer dominates the process;
- finally historians far removed from the time and events sort through the tainted records trying to determine what really happened.
Tertullian (c. 180-220 AD) wrote that most believers rejected his concept of a "trinity" because they believed that there was no division in the Godhead, nor any plurality of persons. This would indicate that his own concept is very close to that held by most official Trinitarian doctrine today. It is, however, very important to note that Tertullian's ideas were rejected as being idolatrous by the large majority of Christians of his day. His "heresy" was not official doctrine until the codification of certain terminology at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, followed by "refinements" and additions in later councils, particularly Chalcedon in 451 AD. But, it can be argued, with significant support from the historical records, that not even the bishops who formulated the doctrine at Nicea would have considered Tertullian's concept orthodox. There was discussion and disagreement about terminology among them, but they were faced with an impossible task, i.e. to reconcile the Arian doctrine with that of the rest of Christianity. Their intent was to officially establish the Deity of Christ as orthodoxy, while answering the arguments of Arius against Christ being God.
One of the primary words chosen by the council was the Latin word "persono," the word translated into the English, "person." However, the Latin word persono was a theatrical term, meaning "mask," and derived from the verb meaning "to speak through." Roman drama was performed by one actor, regardless of how many characters were in the story. The one actor would play all the parts. He would signify which part he was playing by holding up a "persono," or mask which represented that particular character, and "speaking through" that mask the character's lines. Then he would hold up the persono of the next character, and speak through it the next character's lines. And so on. This makes it apparent that the word "person" was not intended to mean "individual center of consciousness" as it is commonly understood today. Thus, it appears that Tertullian's concept of a plurality of individuals in the Godhead was not the intent of the language drafted at Nicea. It wasn't until later councils incorporated other philosophical concepts, such as Philo's "logos" musings, that "persono" was morphed into meaning "individual" in the manner of modern Trinitarian doctrine.
All this indicates that "early Trinitarians" (assuming agreement with the modern definition) were originally a small and unorthodox (heretical) minority until after the Council of Nicea in 325 AD adopted the terminology which would give rise to definitions accepted today. But, if we are to label all who could accept the original meaning of "persono" as "early Trinitarians," then it is manifest that their doctrine has little in common with modern Trinitarianism. They were much closer to the Oneness view than to the Trinitarian. This is made even more manifest when one discovers that the original Nicean deliberations almost totally excluded mention of the Holy Spirit. The "Third Person" was written into the "Nicean Creed" by later councils.
The doctrine of the Trinity has been changed several times through the centuries since it was first codified by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Because of its mystical and contradictory terminology it has been given various definitions by various groups based on subjective objections raised by their leadership.
The doctrine of the Trinity was never a part of the thinking of any of the OT writers, at least as far as can be determined from the many documents recording their words. No significant tenet of the doctrine exists in their prophecies. Rather they are adamant in their insistence on the exclusive, indivisible, and absolute deity of Yahweh.
The NT writers promoted the idea that God is One, a Spirit, and He became flesh by means of the incarnation and virgin birth. Historians of both the Church and Christian doctrine acknowledge this fact. To the NT writers, Jesus Christ is the Almighty God manifest in flesh, not one of three persons in the Godhead.
Proponents of the doctrine of the Trinity, forced by the historical record to acknowledge these facts, strive to circumvent them through theological innovations, most drawn from philosophical musings:
- The "primitive church" (led by the Apostles, whose understanding the Lord had opened, and who were to teach everyone else...see Luke 24:45, Matthew 28:20, etc.) was ignorant of the truth, God having chosen to reveal it progressively to succeeding generations. Today, they say, we understand the most important doctrines far better than they did.
- The doctrine of the Trinity exists as a divine mystery, which can neither be understood or explained by rationality, and must be accepted by "faith." It is something which can only be believed, but not known.
- The contradictions contained within the terminology of the doctrine of the Trinity are necessary to avoid certain heresies condemned throughout Christina history. The doctrine offers no explanation of how the contradictions actually are not contradictory other than that they are part of the "divine mystery."
Interestingly enough, the adoption of the Doctrine of the Trinity marks an tremendous change in Christian history. Prior to 325 A.D. Christians were persecuted by pagans, and others who rejected the exclusive Deity of Jesus Christ as God manifest in flesh. Within fifty years of the adoption of the doctrine of the Trinity, Trinitarian Christians were persecuting anyone who would not accept the doctrine of the Trinity. It seems to me like something went wrong.
I think there are better, and more scriptural ways to define the Godhead than the doctrine of the Trinity. The following statements express a more scriptural confession of the doctrine of the Person, Identity, and Name of God:
- God is One. Deuteronomy 6:4; Mark 12:29; et al.
- God is a Spirit. John 4:24; Ephesians 4:4; et al.
- God (who is a Spirit) became a Man. Exodus 15:2; Isaiah 12:2; Psalm 118:14 - 21; John 1:1, 14; 2 Corinthians 3:17; et al.
- The Man God became is identified by the Name “Jesus,” with various other titles added: “The Lord Jesus,” “Jesus Christ,” “The Lord Jesus Christ,” “Jesus of Nazareth,” etc. Luke 1:31; Matthew 1:21; Acts 8:16; 10:36; 11:17; 22:8; et al.
- The Man God became was fully God in the Absolute sense through “the mystery of godliness,” which is the Incarnation. Thus, the Man God became is “God with us,” “the Mighty God,” “the Everlasting Father,” and “the Almighty.” 1 Timothy 3:16; Isaiah 7:14; Isaiah 9:6; Revelation 1:8; etc.
- The Man God became was also fully Human in the Ultimate sense through the seed of the virgin woman of the lineage of Eve, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and David, yet totally without any sin nature because He was also God Incarnate. Genesis 3:15; Genesis 49:10; 1 Kings 8:26 - 27; Acts 2:30; Romans 9:5; Galatians 4:4; Hebrews 4:15; etc.
- As a Man, He increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man; learned obedience, suffered, died by crucifixion, was buried and rose again the third day. Luke 2:52; Hebrews 5:8 - 9; 1 Corinthians 15:1 - 4; et al.
- As a Man, the scriptures use the following titles to designate His Deity (Godhead) and Humanity:
- “The Son of God,” 1 John 4:15; 1 John 5:20; et al.
- “The Son of Man,” Matthew 12:8; John 5:27; et al.
It is fully as serious an error to detract from or deny His Perfect and Ultimate Humanity as it is to lessen or dilute His Absolute and Exclusive Deity. He is both fully Human and fully God. This is one factor of His Uniqueness and Incomparability. There is none like Him!
© 2000 Clifford H. Readout, Jr.
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