The Evolution of the Doctrine of the Trinity
Modern Christians owe a debt of gratitude to the early church. Her legacy of courage under persecution stands to this day as a bold testimony of faith. However, this legacy tends to overshadow the devastating impact of false teachers who crept into the fold shortly after the ascension of Christ. These purported Christians, better known as Gnostics, subtly twisted scripture using pagan Greek philosophy. It became so pervasive that the apostle John wrote three fiercely anti-Gnostic epistles in response.
The fourth century church councils are said to have rooted out such heresies and safeguarded Christian doctrine from the encroachment of pagan philosophy. But a more careful investigation of the historical record reveals a very different story. This article highlights specific facts about persons and events surrounding the development of the Trinitarian doctrine that are vital to an accurate evaluation, yet are rarely – if ever – mentioned in popular teaching.
Ancient Israel always had the distinction of believing in one supreme God. This mono-theistic creed of Israel known as the Shema is found in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”
While there are a few times in Genesis where God says “Let us,” both the NIV and NET1 study Bibles recognize these as God addressing his heavenly court of angels. The consistent Old Testament use of the personal name Yahweh (YHWH) in association with singular personal pronouns such as I, me, and my, should remove any doubt that ancient Israel believed God to be one singular personal being.
Jesus himself affirmed the Shema by quoting this ancient creed of Israel verbatim in Mark 12:29. Yet he did not suggest that “the Lord is one” meant anything other than what Israel had always understood it to mean – one singular personal being. Throughout his ministry, he identified the Father in heaven as God and routinely distinguished himself from this “only true God” whom he served (Jn 17:3).
Shortly after the resurrection and ascension, Peter preached an evangelistic sermon to his fellow Jews. But in this sermon Peter did not announce the Trinitarian nature of God. Instead, he identified God as the Father in heaven. He then described Jesus as a man attested by God, and the Spirit as the gift of God (Acts 2:14-40). This message was sufficient unto salvation for all who had ears to hear.
Likewise Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, identified the “One God” as the Father (Eph. 4:6), and declared him to be “the God of our Lord Jesus” (Eph. 1:17). Jesus is thus seated at the right hand of his God, who is the One God of Israel (Eph. 1:20). Similar statements appear throughout Paul’s letters. Moreover, without exception, the OT and NT identify the “One God” of Israel as the Father alone (e.g. Mal. 2:10, 1 Cor. 8:6; Eph. 4:6; 1 Ti. 2:5).
Although Jesus is referred to as “God” a few times in the New Testament, this follows the Old Testament precedent in which the title “God” (elohim in Hebrew, theos in Greek) is occasionally applied to Yahweh’s chosen agents to signify their status as his representatives.2 Hebrews 1:8-9 illustrates this principle well. Here, Psalm 45:6-7 is applied to Jesus, indicating that he is Yahweh’s supreme representative and royal vice-regent:
Dr. Thomas L. Constable, professor of Bible exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary, comments on this royal wedding Psalm that many scholars believe was originally addressed to an earlier Davidic king:3
The writer addressed his human king as “God” (Elohim). He did not mean that the king was God but that he stood in the place of God and represented Him. Compare Exodus 21:6; 22:8-9; and Psalm 82:1 where the biblical writers called Israel’s judges gods because they represented God. This is an extravagant expression of praise for the king. God had blessed this king because he had represented the Lord faithfully by ruling as Yahweh does.Dr. Thomas Constable, Constable's Notes on the Bible (Psalm 45:6)
Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann further explains that in Psalm 45, “[t]he king is joyfully anointed with oil by God, signifying that God has chosen the king as an intermediary figure. The king represents God in ruling over the people in Jerusalem and speaking to them. The king also represents the people in speaking to God in prayer. The poet celebrates the ideal king, who has a special relationship with God and who brings justice and honor to the kingdom.” 4
The New Testament confirms that the word “God” is applied to Jesus in this representational sense by emphasizing that Jesus has a God over him, namely the One God of Israel.5 The superiority of Jesus over all other representatives of YHWH is indicated by his virgin birth as the sinless second Adam, and confirmed by his exaltation to the “right hand of God” – a position that clearly places him over the entire created order while at the same time distinguishing him from the One God whom he worships to this day as his own God (e.g. Rev. 1:6; 3:2, 12).
The year 70 AD was a dramatic turning point for the fledgling church. Jerusalem was sacked by the Roman army, scattering the surviving Jews and disconnecting Christianity from its Jewish birthplace. Most of the apostles had been martyred by this time, and the church was soon driven underground by Roman persecution.
Christianity nevertheless continued to spread outward from Jerusalem and into a pagan Greco-Roman society saturated in the ideas of the famous Greek philosopher Plato (428 BC). Plato wrote a mythical account of creation called Timaeus which included metaphysical theories about the nature of man that would later dramatically influence post-apostolic Christian doctrine. The Catholic Encyclopedia observes:
Moreover, Plato’s interest in nature is dominated by a teleological view of the world as animated with a World-Soul, which, conscious of its process, does all things for a useful purpose. . .he believes the [human] soul to have existed before its union with the body. The whole theory of Ideas, in so far, at least, as it is applied to human knowledge, presupposes the doctrine of pre-existence.The Catholic Encyclopedia, Plato and Platonism
Plato’s World-Soul was also known as the Logos, which simply means word. In Platonic philosophy, the Logos refers to a conscious, rational organizing principle of the universe. It is portrayed as a second god made by the Supreme God at the dawn of creation. This Logos demiurge goes on to create both the material world and all immaterial human souls.6
According to Plato, human souls consciously pre-exist, dwelling with the gods in the heavens until they descend to earth and enter the womb to be born as human beings. They are then perpetually reincarnated as other humans (or animals) until they acquire enough wisdom to be released from a bodily existence in order to ascend back to the heavens as eternally disembodied souls.7
In stark contrast to the Greeks, the Hebrew scriptures teach that human beings begin to exist when they are conceived in the womb. Genesis 2:7 indicates that the human soul (nephesh in Hebrew) is not purely immaterial but rather consists of two things in combination: the breath of God and the dust of the earth. Thus, the only sense in which a person’s soul can “pre-exist” is in the eternal plan of God, a concept more commonly known as predestination. E.C. Dewick says of this contrast:
When the Jew said something was “predestined,” he thought of it as already “existing” in a higher sphere of life. The world’s history is thus predestined because it is already, in a sense, preexisting and consequently fixed. This typically Jewish conception of predestination may be distinguished from the Greek idea of preexistence by the predominance of the thought of “preexistence” in the Divine purpose.E.C. Dewick, Primitive Christian Eschatology, pp. 253-254
This idea is found throughout the scriptures and also in the extra-biblical rabbinic writings of the Second Temple period. Some examples include:
- Before I formed you [Jeremiah] in the womb I knew you and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations. (Jer. 1:5)
- . . .the LORD [Yahweh]. . .formed me [the Messiah] from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him. . . (Is. 49:5)
- But He did design and devise me [Moses], and He prepared me from the beginning of the world to be mediator of His covenant. (Testament of Moses 1:14, ca. 150 BC)
From a Jewish perspective, key figures in God’s salvific plan were so certain to come into being that they were spoken of as being “created” or “known” before they were born. This was simply an idiomatic way of expressing divine predestination. The Hebrew concept of figurative human pre-existence within the plan of God is diametrically opposed to the Greek concept of literal human pre-existence as conscious immaterial beings.
Philo Judaeus (20 BC – 50 AD)
Philo Judaeus was a Hellenized Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria, Egypt around the time of Christ. He is best known for blending elements of pagan religions such as Platonism, Stoicism, and Gnostic Mysticism with his own Judaism in a series of commentaries on the Old Testament. These commentaries later had a profound impact upon the theology of many early church fathers.
Alexandria was a city with a large Jewish population which had already shown an affinity for a plethora of pagan Greek and Egyptian religions. Scholar Alfred Plummer identifies this Alexandrian brand of Judaism as “theosophy,” noting that “it was a compound of theology with philosophy and mysticism.” 8
Philo’s personal affinity for Platonic philosophy is well documented. He considered Plato the “sweetest of all writers,” 9 and held to Platonic doctrines such as the conscious pre-existence of the human soul and an eternally disembodied future. Harold Willoughby observes of Philo’s syncretism:
With his admiration for Greek philosophy and his loyalty to his own religion, Philo found himself in a dilemma. He was unwilling to yield either the philosophy or the religion; so he sought to reconcile them. In this attempt he was but trying to do what other thoughtful men of his own race in the same environment had endeavored to do before him. Over a century and a half earlier, Aristobulus had worked out certain analogies between his ancestral faith and the speculations of Plato, which he explained by the assumption that the Greek philosopher borrowed his ideas from Moses.Taking this as his cue, Philo proceeded to read into the Pentateuch whatever he considered worthwhile in the different systems of gentile philosophy. This was, of course, a difficult and violent procedure; but Philo readily accomplished it by means of the allegorical method of interpretation, an instrument borrowed from the Stoics.Harold Willoughby, Pagan Regeneration, ch IX
Philo’s most notorious attempt to merge Platonic philosophy with the Old Testament involves the concept of the Logos. The Greek and Hebrew cultures both give a prominent place to the Logos, but they each had very different concepts behind this shared name.
The Platonic Logos was a second god and conscious demiurge. The Old Testament logos of YHWH, on the other hand, was not a who but a what. Though it was occasionally personified (as seen in Proverbs 8), it did not refer to an independent being, but rather to YHWH’s plans, commands, and active communication, which was typically delivered to his human recipients by angels, dreams, or visions.10
In Philo’s commentary, this crucial difference between the Greek Logos and the Hebrew logos becomes blurred. He depicts God’s logos as everything from abstract reason11 to a quasi-independent “second god.“12 Indeed, it is Philo who introduces the idea that the Old Testament angel of the LORD does not merely deliver the logos of God, but actually is the logos of God.13 In so doing, he portrays God’s logos in a way that “far outstrips anything said in the OT or LXX [Septuagint].” 14
Dr. H.A. Kennedy concludes that “the Logos hypothesis itself, as it appears in Philo, is full of confusion. This is no doubt partly due to its composition from heterogeneous elements, Platonic dualism, Stoic monism, and Jewish monotheism.” 15 Yet this paradigm powerfully influenced many patristic writers who laid the foundations of post-Biblical Christology, including Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen.
Indeed, as Philo specialist David T. Runia writes, the “[c]hurch fathers. . .came to regard Philo as a ‘brother in the faith’, and did not hesitate to take over a great number of ideas and themes from his writings.” 16
Justin Martyr (100 – 165 AD)
Justin Martyr was born in Palestine into a pagan family. He studied and taught as a Platonic philosopher before converting to Christianity around the age of thirty. While he is best remembered for his martyrdom at the hands of Rome, Justin also played a pivotal role in shaping church doctrine.
He is credited with giving the church the Logos Christology, which is the doctrine of the Incarnation in its earliest post-Biblical form. Specifically, Justin interprets the logos of John 1:1-14 to be a consciously pre-existent spirit being who consented to become a human being by entering the womb of Mary.
But this interpretation stands in contrast to the logos as portrayed in the Hebrew OT and Greek LXX that serve as the background for John’s prologue. Dr. James Dunn points out that “pre-Christian Judaism itself gives us no real reason for supposing that [the Word and Wisdom of God] were understood as any more than personifications of the one God’s activity towards and in his creation.” 17
The Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, voted one of Christianity Today’s 1998 Books of the Year, notes that “[t]he function of the Johannine ‘Word’ (logos) approximates that of Wisdom, which in biblical and postbiblical traditions is sometimes personified.” 18
Writing in this Hebraic tradition, John likely employed personification in much the same way in Jn. 1:1-13. Dunn explains, “while we can say that divine wisdom became incarnate in Christ, that does not mean that Wisdom was a divine being, or that Christ himself was preexistent with God.” 19
Dr. Paul V.M. Flesher and Dr. Bruce Chilton, specialists in Judaism and early Christianity, likewise caution that “the prologue itself does not impute personal preexistence to Jesus as the divine logos, although it does see the logos itself as eternal.” They point out that the popular interpretation of the logos as a personally pre-existent Jesus was “unduly influenced by the subsequent theology of the early church.” 20
This subsequent theology is largely rooted in Justin’s assertion that the logos of YHWH was a consciously pre-existent being. Justin finds support for his claim in the Platonic paradigm:
And the physiological discussion concerning the Son of God in the Timaeus of Plato, where he says, ‘He placed him crosswise in the universe’, he borrowed in like manner from Moses; for in the writings of Moses it is related how at that time, when the Israelites went out of Egypt and were in the wilderness, they fell in with poisonous beasts…and that Moses…took brass, and made it into the figure of a cross…Which things Plato reading, and not accurately understanding, and not apprehending that it was the figure of the cross, but taking it to be a placing crosswise, he said that the power next to the first God was placed crosswise in the universe…For [Plato] gives the second place to the Logos which is with God, who he said was placed crosswise in the universe…Justin Martyr, First Apology, ch. LX
Justin alleges that the Hebrew scriptures inspired Plato to devise the pre-existent Logos found in his Timaeus creation account.21 Having thus “legitimized” the Platonic paradigm, the apologist builds his Christology around the Greek notion of literal pre-existence and interweaves it with Philo’s syncretistic theory that the OT angel of the LORD is one and the same as the OT logos of the LORD.
Indeed, David Runia notes that in Justin’s works “the concept of the Logos in both a pre-incarnate and incarnate state. . .betray indebtedness to Hellenistic Judaism in general and Philo in particular.” 22 Consequently, when Justin reads in John 1 that the logos which created all things later “became flesh” in the person of Jesus, he does not read it through the Hebraic lens of a personified logos that later became fully embodied by the man Jesus; instead he understands it to mean that Jesus consciously pre-existed his birth as the OT angel of the LORD before turning himself into a human being.23
But it should be carefully noted that Justin does not think Jesus pre-existed as Yahweh. To the contrary, the Father is “the only unbegotten, unutterable God,” 24 while Jesus “is God in that he is the first-begotten of all creatures.” 25 In other words, Justin views Jesus through the Platonic lens of a second and subordinate God:
The role of Justin’s Logos Christology in shaping mainstream Christian doctrine can hardly be overstated. Many future fathers of the church, including Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Eusebius of Caesarea, would cite Justin’s works to support their own theological treatises. His Christology would become the foundation upon which all future speculation about the nature of Jesus Christ was built during the later church councils. But Justin’s view of Christ as a second and subordinate God would eventually be judged heretical by the very doctrine he helped construct.
Origen (185 – 251 AD)
Born into a Christian family, Origen received a superior Greek education steeped in the teachings of Plato. He went on to teach philosophy in Alexandria, Egypt, and eventually became the leading Christian intellectual of his day. Origen is known for his mystical speculation about scripture, following the allegorical tradition established by Philo. Ilaria L. E. Ramelli writes of the connection between Philo and Origen:
Philo was so deeply persuaded that the Mosaic Scripture and Platonism were inspired by the same Logos as to insist that Scripture actually expounded the famous Platonic doctrine of the Ideas. . .It is significant, but not surprising, that Philo’s exegesis was soon taken over by Origen. . . .Philo understood the Hebrew Scripture as an allegorical exposition of Platonic doctrines. And Origen followed in his footsteps.Ilaria L. E. Ramelli, 'Philo as Origen's Declared Model', p.5
Origen promoted the Platonic idea that all human souls pre-existed as rational beings who fell from heaven and subsequently entered wombs to be born in the flesh. These souls would then be perpetually reincarnated from one human body to another until, through mystical contemplation, they finally ascended to heaven. In this model, all souls (including Satan) would eventually be redeemed.27
It was Origen who devised the theory known as the Eternal Generation of the Son. This pillar of Trinitarian theology makes one very significant change to Justin’s view that Jesus, as the Son of God, was begotten by God in pre-human form at the dawn of creation. Origen proposed that Jesus never had a beginning. The word “begotten” could be stretched to mean an infinite span of time, such that Jesus is eternally being “begotten” right up to the present day in a mystical sense that simply can’t be fathomed:
Firmly rooted in Platonic metaphysics, Origen’s idea that the begotten Son had a “beginning-less” beginning became popular in certain quarters of the Hellenized church. But this concept was not accepted by all, and would ultimately become the flashpoint of controversy in the Christological debates of the following century.
Origen himself would be posthumously anathematized as a heretic at the Fifth Ecumenical Council for other doctrines within the work containing his theory on the Eternal Generation of the Son. 29
Tertullian (160 – 225 AD)
Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus was born Carthage, Africa. A contemporary of Origen, Tertullian was a noted theologian and an equally gifted writer. He was the first Latin Christian philosopher to coin the theological term “Trinity” and supply a formal doctrine for it.30 Tertullian’s ideas, built upon the Logos Christology of the prior century, contain many of the phrases found in the official creeds.
Yet Tertullian did not conceive of a co-equal, co-eternal, co-essential Trinity. Instead he had in mind an unequal Trinity in which God is distinct from and fully superior to the Son and Holy Spirit. For Tertullian, there was a time when the Son did not exist: “He could not have been the Father previous to the Son, nor a Judge previous to sin. There was, however, a time when neither sin existed with Him, nor the Son.” 31
Later church councils frowned upon Tertullian’s conception of the Trinity. The New Catholic Encyclopedia notes: “In not a few areas of theology, Tertullian’s views are, of course, completely unacceptable.” 32 Thus the man who introduced the concept of the Trinity into theological discourse was judged heretical according to the final version of his own doctrine.
The Arian Controversy (318 – 381 AD)
The final leg of the journey toward an official doctrine of the Trinity unfolded over a period of 60 years in the fourth century (318 – 381 AD). It involved a famous dispute known as the Arian Controversy. When this portion of church history is discussed in mainstream Christianity, Arius is cast as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, insidiously attempting to subvert established church doctrine with heretical teachings. But this turns out to be a significant distortion of the truth.
The theological state of affairs at the dawn of the fourth century was complex. Due to recent Roman persecution, the church existed not as a monolithic body with a uniform set of doctrines, but as a loose network of nearly autonomous assemblies. By this time many divergent views about the nature of Christ had arisen out of the assumption that Jesus consciously pre-existed his birth. Each sect was equally convinced that they were correct and vigorously denounced their rivals as heretics.33
Some of the most speculative ideas about Christ’s nature originated in Alexandria, Egypt, the ancient hub of intellectual thought where Philo and Origen once taught. A bishop named Alexander presided over the church in this famous port city, and serving beneath him was an older Libyan priest named Arius.
The crux of the disagreement between Arius and his bishop lay in how they defined the word begotten. Arius contended that since the Father alone is unbegotten, the Father is the sole source of everything else in existence. The Son cannot be co-eternal because this would mean that he is unbegotten, making two unbegotten sources of everything rather than one.
Aligning with the second century church, Arius argued that the term “begotten” necessitated a beginning. He held that the Son’s existence began when he was begotten by the Father just prior to the creation of the world. Bishop Alexander, however, embraced Origen’s claim that the Son can be begotten by God yet also be co-eternal with God by means of a mystical “begetting” that spans all of eternity.
When Alexander discovered that his own priest disputed this point, he sent a scathing letter to a fellow bishop, urging the excommunication of Arius and his supporters as men who were nothing short of “wicked” for denying Origen’s Eternal Generation theory: “I roused myself to show you the faithlessness of those who say that there was a time when the Son of God did not exist.” 34 This effectively labeled previous contributors to the doctrine of the Trinity such as Tertullian and Justin Martyr as wicked and faithless men, for they held this view long before Arius.
The presbyter nevertheless attempted to reconcile with his bishop by letter. He politely restated his position and noted that it was the faith received “from our forefathers,” perhaps referring to men like Justin and Tertullian. Alexander rejected this overture and instead convened a local council in 318 AD, where the leadership were required to sign a document professing his Origenist Christology. Those who refused were to be expelled.35
Yet at this point in church history, there was no “orthodox” view on the metaphysical nature of Christ. Dr. R.P.C. Hanson points out that “Alexander’s leaning toward Origen was the result of his personal choice, not the perpetuation of the tradition of his see.” 36 Opposing not established orthodoxy but bishop Alexander’s personal opinion, Arius refused to sign the document and was subsequently ousted. But his supporters later held their own council to have him reinstated. So began a series of contentious councils that threatened to divide both the church and the empire.
Constantine and the Council of Nicaea
Constantine the Great was emperor of Rome at the time of the Arian controversy. Over the course of his violent reign he murdered his father-in-law, three brothers-in-law, a nephew, his first-born son, and his wife. He was also an opportunistic man who nominally embraced Christianity after having a dream in which he saw a cross in the sky and was told that this symbol would grant him military victory.37
Constantine initially tried to resolve the burgeoning dispute between Arius and Alexander by letter. The emperor did not consider the disagreement a serious theological matter; rather, his primary goal was to unite an empire that was quickly becoming fragmented along religious sectarian lines. Thus, when his attempt to broker peace failed, he convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.
The turnout was relatively slim – only about 300 of the 1800 invited to the conference actually attended, and most of these were Alexander’s supporters.38 At the end of the proceedings, Constantine delivered a speech urging the attendees to vote for the bishop’s Origenist Christology. He made his case by citing writers such as Virgil, Cicero, and a pagan priestess named Erythraean Sybil. But his crowning piece of evidence was Plato’s Timaeus:
Lastly, Plato himself, the gentlest and most refined of all, who first essayed to draw men’s thoughts from sensible to intellectual and eternal objects, and taught them to aspire to sublimer speculations, in the first place declared, with truth, a God exalted above every essence, but to him he [Plato] added also a second, distinguishing them numerically as two, though both possessing one perfection, and the being of the second Deity proceeding from the first. . .In accordance, therefore, with the soundest reason, we may say that there is one Being whose care and providence are over all things, even God the Word, who has ordered all things; but the Word being God himself is also the Son of God.Oration of Constantine to the assembly of the saints (Eusebius)
History attests that the Council of Nicaea voted for the emperor-endorsed view of Bishop Alexander. But the wording of the creed – which employed the highly controversial and originally Gnostic term homoousios (meaning “same substance”) – left it open to different interpretations.39
As a result, a fresh round of acrimonious councils convened in the decades that followed. This included the double council of Rimini-Seleucia in 359 AD, which was better represented than Nicaea with nearly 500 bishops in combined attendance, yet voted in favor of the Arian view.40 Indeed, the majority of the numerous councils following Nicaea voted against Nicaea’s position. Constantine himself would later change his mind several times on the issue and ultimately on his deathbed chose to be baptized by an Arian priest.41
Athanasius (296 – 373 AD)
Athanasius was an Alexandrian Egyptian who began his theological career as one of Bishop Alexander’s deacons. Three years after the council of Nicaea, he succeeded Alexander as archbishop of the Alexandrian church. Athanasius fought tenaciously for the supremacy of his mentor’s Christology and is consequently given most of the credit for the defeat of Arianism at the end of the fourth century.42
In the biography Contending for Our All, Dr. John Piper notes that Athanasius is considered the Father of Trinitarian Orthodoxy.43 We are told that all five of Athanasius’ exiles – the result of being convicted for crimes such as violence, embezzlement, and treason – were actually the unjust persecutions of an innocent man. Piper dubs him “God’s Fugitive,”44 and characterizes him by exclusively quoting his ardent supporters, such as Gregory of Nyssa:
Such effusive praise gives the distinct impression that Athanasius was rivaled only by the apostles themselves in his piety. However, we discover another side to this man in one of Piper’s cited sources,46 a widely respected study on the church councils of the fourth century called The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God by Dr. R.P.C. Hanson:
Athanasius’ abuse of his opponents, even allowing for what he had suffered at their hands, sometimes reaches almost the point of hysteria. . .In one of his later Festal Letters, while formally urging his flock not to indulge in hate, he expresses a venomous hatred of Jews and Arians.It seems clear also that Athanasius’ first efforts at gangsterism in his diocese had nothing to do with difference of opinion about the subject of the Arian Controversy, but were directed against the Melitians. . .Once he was in the saddle, he determined to suppress them with a strong hand, and was not at all scrupulous about the methods he used. We can now see why, for at least twenty years after 335, no Eastern Bishop would communicate with Athanasius. He had been justly convicted of disgraceful behavior in his see. His conviction had nothing to do with doctrinal issues. No church could be expected to tolerate behavior like this on the part of one of its bishops.
— R.P.C. Hanson, Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, p. 243, 254-255
Hanson devotes an entire chapter of his book to the appalling “Behavior of Athanasius.”47 Here we discover that Athanasius frequently slandered his opponents and misrepresented their beliefs. He also had no qualms about using physical violence to achieve his goals, persecuting a rival sect known as the Melitians by having them arrested and beaten, and imprisoning one of their bishops in a meat locker for days.48
But when the dust settled, even the Father of Trinitarian Orthodoxy would not be judged kindly by the final version of his own creed. Hanson points out that “Athanasius had no word for what God is as Three in distinction from what God is as One, and acquiesced in a formulation of God as a single hypostasis at Serdica which by standards of Cappadocian orthodoxy was heretical.” 49
The Three Cappadocians
Shortly after Athanasius’ death in 373 AD, three theologians from the Cappadocia region of Asia Minor put the finishing touches on the Trinitarian doctrine: Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, and Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyssa. These men devised the formula by which the Holy Spirit was incorporated into the Godhead, giving us the concept of God as three-in-one.
The novelty of this idea is evident by Gregory of Nyssa’s own admission that “[o]f the wise among us, some hold the Holy Spirit to be a power, others a creature, others for God, and still others are unwilling to decide, out of reverence (or so they say) for the Scriptures, which do not speak plainly on the matter.” 50
The idea of a “triune” God put forward by the three Cappadocians was in fact an entirely new proposition that owed a great deal to Greek philosophy. Hanson writes of the Cappadocians:
There can be no doubt about [Gregory of Nyssa’s] debt to Platonic philosophy. . .Gregory holds firmly along with his brother Basil and his namesake of Nazianzus, that we can know and must believe that God is one “ousia” and three “hypostases”. . .Though in fact Gregory has fused many contemporary philosophical ideas into his doctrinal system, he is wary about acknowledging his debt to pagan philosophy and prefers to delude himself (as almost all his predecessors and contemporaries did) into believing that the philosophers had been anticipated in their ideas by Moses and the prophets.
Reigning emperor Theodosius found the philosophical concept of a three-in-one God appealing. He made it his mission to outlaw and forcibly disband any religious system – including other Christian sects – that disagreed with his new theology. Thus, on February 27, 380 AD, he and two other reigning Roman emperors handed down a joint edict just prior to the Council of Constantinople, leaving little doubt about how the subsequent council would vote:
Following this edict, Theodosius expelled the presiding bishop from Constantinople and replaced him with the Cappadocian Gregory of Nazianzus. Having arranged religious authority to align with his theological preferences, Theodosius convened the famous Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. The inevitable outcome cemented this final form of Trinitarianism into official orthodoxy, primarily because Theodosius enshrined it into Roman law. Both paganism and Christian beliefs that did not conform to newly-minted Trinitarianism were now illegal and violators were punished severely.51
For about the first three hundred years of the church – longer than the United States of America has been in existence – there was no concept of a triune God. The present form of the doctrine not only evolved gradually, but it evolved in such a way that the very men who provided its building blocks have been judged heretics by the creed’s final version. Historian R.P.C. Hanson rightly states that the early church councils were “not the story of a defense of orthodoxy, but of a search for orthodoxy, a search conducted by the method of trial and error.” 52
Mainstream Christianity has placed enormous faith in the philosophical conclusions of men who lived hundreds of years after Christ. It is assumed that the Holy Spirit guided them to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity, yet as Joseph Lynch comments, the “[c]ouncils were occasionally unruly and even violent meetings that did not achieve the unanimity that was thought to indicate the presence of the Holy Spirit.” 53 Indeed, upon closer examination, it was the philosopher Plato who dramatically influenced how these men interpreted scripture.
Jesus taught us how to discern true teaching from false teaching when he said: “You will recognize them by their fruits.” (Matt 7:16). The fruit of the Holy Spirit includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). Holy Spirit wisdom is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:27). By contrast, participant Hilary of Poitiers characterizes the church councils thus:
While we fight about words, inquire about novelties, take advantage of ambiguities, criticize authors, fight on party questions, have difficulties in agreeing, and prepare to anathematize each other, there is scarce a man who belongs to Christ. . .We determine creeds by the year or by the month, we change our own determinations, we prohibit our changes, we anathematize our prohibitions. Thus, we either condemn others in our own persons, or ourselves in the instance of others, and while we bite and devour one another, are like to be consumed one of another.Hilary of Poitiers, Ad Const. ii. 4,5 (~360 AD)
Moreover, the doctrine of the Trinity is a post-Biblical doctrine rooted in Greek philosophy. The Old Testament didn’t teach it, Jesus didn’t teach it, the apostles didn’t teach it, and the very early church didn’t teach it. We are therefore wise to re-evaluate this doctrine carefully against the full counsel of scripture.
- The NET Bible Commentary notes: “In its ancient Israelite context the plural is most naturally understood as referring to God and his heavenly court (see 1 Kgs 22:19-22; Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6; Isa 6:1-8)”. https://net.bible.org/#!bible/Genesis+1:26, Footnote #47 ↵
- As Hastings Dictionary of the Bible notes, the word elohim (God) in the Old Testament is applied not only to Yahweh, but also to heathen gods, supernatural beings, and human beings. E.g. Ex 7:1, Ex 21:6, Ex 22:8-9; Ps 82:1, cp. Jn 10:34. See https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/g/god.html ↵
- Interpreters are divided on whether this Psalm is purely prophetic or was originally addressed to an earlier Davidic King and later applied to Christ. Regardless, the fact that this king has a God who anoints and blesses him (vss. 2, 7) tells the reader that the title elohim refers to his status as Yahweh’s exalted human representative. ↵
- Walter Bruggemann and William H. Bellinger Jr., Psalms, p.214. ↵
- That Jesus has a God is expressly stated in numerous passages, including Matt 27:46, Jn 17:3, Jn 20:17, Rom 15:6, 2 Cor 1:3, 2 Co 11:31, Eph 1:3, Eph 1:17, Heb 1:9, 1 Pe 1:3, Rev 1:6, Rev 3:2, Rev 3:12. That the God of Jesus is the One God is confirmed by Jesus himself in John 17:3 and by Paul’s identification of the Father as both the One God and the God of Jesus. See for example 1 Cor 8:6, cp. Rom 15:6. ↵
- Plato, Timaeus, sec. 34a-34c. ↵
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metempsychosis ↵
- Alfred Plummer, Gospel According to John, p. 61 ↵
- Philo, Every Good Man is Free. http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book33.html ↵
- E.g. Gen. 15:1, 1 Ki. 13:18, 1 Ki. 16:12, 1 Ki 17:24, 2 Ki 1:17, 1 Sa 3:1, Amos 8:12. Bible scholars widely agree with Alfred Plummer’s observation that “in the Old Testament we find the Word or Wisdom of God personified,” rather than portraying a second individual. (St. John, Cambridge School for Bibles, p. 61.) ↵
- Philo, Who is the Heir of Divine Things, ch XLVIII, sec 233ff. ↵
- Philo, Questions and Answers in Genesis II, Sec. 62. ↵
- Though this concept enthusiastically was co-opted by the early church fathers, it is conspicuous absence from the NT. ↵
- James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making, p. 216. Brackets mine. ↵
- H.A. Kennedy, Philo’s Contribution to Religion, pp. 162-163. ↵
- David T. Runia, Philo and the Beginnings of Christian Thought. ↵
- James Dunn, Christology in the Making, p. 220. Brackets mine. ↵
- Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, eds. Martin, Davids, “Christianity and Judaism: Partings of The Ways”, 3.2. Johannine Christology. ↵
- James Dunn, Christology in the Making, p. 212. ↵
- Paul V.M. Flesher and Bruce Chilton, The Targums: A Critical Introduction, p. 432 ↵
- There is no historical evidence that Plato ever came in contact with the Torah. Nor could he have encountered the word cross in the story of the bronze serpent, for the Hebrew word in Numbers 21:8-9 is nec, meaning banner, signal pole, or ensign. The serpent was not placed upon a cross but a pole. ↵
- David T. Runia, Philo in Early Christian Literature, p. 99. ↵
- James Dunn notes that in the NT “the writer to the Hebrews refutes the suggestion with vigour – ‘To what angel did God ever say. . .’ (Heb. 1.5).” James D.G. Dunn, Christology in the Making, p. 155 ↵
- Dialogue with Trypho, ch. CXXVI ↵
- Dialogue with Trypho, ch. CXXV ↵
- Dialogue with Trypho, ch. LVI ↵
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_reconciliation ↵
- Origen, De Principiis, bk I, ch II, sec 4 ↵
- http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.xii.ix.html ↵
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tertullian ↵
- Tertullian, Against Hermogenes, Ch III. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian13.html ↵
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tertullian ↵
- Joseph H. Lynch, Early Christianity: A Brief History, p. 62 ↵
- Epistles on Arianism and the Deposition of Arius ↵
- We only learn of this letter through Alexander’s protege Athanasius, who reproduced it in his work De Synodis and labeled it as “vomit from their heretical hearts.” See Athanasius, De Synodis ↵
- R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, p. 145 ↵
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine_the_Great ↵
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Council_of_Nicaea ↵
- In History of the Christian Church, Philip Schaff notes that the word homoousios was “no more of a biblical term than ‘trinity'” and was in fact first used by 2nd century Gnostic sects such as the Valentinians. See http://www.bible.ca/history/philip-schaff/3_ch09.htm#_ednref102. ↵
- http://orthodoxwiki.org/Council_of_Rimini ↵
- Contantine was baptized just before his death by the Arian priest Eusebius of Nicomedia. See http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05623b.htm ↵
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athanasius_of_Alexandria ↵
- John Piper, Contending for our All, p. 42 ↵
- Piper, p. 55 ↵
- Gregory of Nyssa (cited by John Piper in Contending for our All, p. 40). ↵
- Piper cites Dr. Hanson on page 42. ↵
- Hanson, pp. 239-273 ↵
- Hanson, p. 253 ↵
- Hanson, p. 870 ↵
- The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, p. 112 ↵
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_persecution_of_paganism_under_Theodosius_I ↵
- Hanson, pp. xix-xx ↵
- Joseph H. Lynch, Early Christianity: A Brief History, p. 147 ↵