Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Is Trinitarianism Essential?


What can you tell me of the history of the doctrine of the trinity? When did the word, trinity, first became part of our vocabulary (christianeese, that is)? Did the early church fathers teach on it? Can it be supported biblically?

Thank you for your time.


Ah, Gordon, you open up such cans of worms.

Let's go through it in chronological order.

There are hints in the OT as to the plurality of God, but it is unclear as to whether it is speaking of different persons who are God, or there are a multiple of powerful spirit beings ('gods') that Yahweh is always the head of. I personally believe in the second one. This would explain that the word for "god" is plural, why the "angel of Yahweh" speaks directly as God (because he is a full representative of Yahweh), and the "we" language in the early chapters of Genesis.

In the NT, there are a couple passages that clearly and without qualification call Jesus "God", especially in the book of John. When it says "the Word was God", and "there was nothing made that was not made by him" it seems as clear as possible. The problem I have is that in the first century Moses was also called "god" by many people. So the statement "Moses was God" would be marginally uncontroversial in the first century. But it wouldn't mean that Moses is of the same being as Yahweh. It would mean that he is a powerful spirit being.In the NT, the following is clear about Jesus:
a. Jesus existed before he was born of a virgin.
b. Jesus originally came from heaven-- i.e. was a spirit being.
c. Jesus participated in the creation of the universe.
d. Jesus shares in the power of Yahweh
e. Jesus is submitted completely to the Father's will
f. Jesus shares in the worship and titles of Yahweh

In the NT, the Spirit is given importance in practical matters, but the metaphysical properties of the Spirit just aren't discussed. In Acts 5, the Spirit is mentioned as God, but it isn't clear as to whether he is acting as a full representative or a sharer in the nature of God. The "clearest" Trinitarian text is Matthew 28, which has us being baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But all that is mentioned is the names, not the relationship between them.

After the NT was finished, there was much speculation as to the nature of the Son and the Spirit, especially at the time of Constantine. Greek philosophy, especially Platonism was significant in the Roman Empire at the time (around the early 4th century), and all theology was being relegated to a postscript of Plato. Plato changed everything. Because of him, most people think of the "spirit" as ethreal, instead of an alternative physical; because of him and Aristotle, they think of God in philosophical terms-- omnipresent, the "prime mover", etc-- instead of a person. And the most interesting philosophical problem in Christian theology is the divine nature of Jesus-- a subject which the NT ignored.

Origin and Tertullian paved the way, but it was Arius and Athenatius (sp?) that created the famous debate that would create many heresies and kill many people. Arius was a teacher in a theology school in Alexandria, and he taught that Jesus was "god" in the sense of any of the other pagan gods. That he was a powerful spiritual being, that he was significant in the creation of the world and that he was the full representative of Yahweh, the king of all gods. But, he said, Jesus was NOT of the same nature as Yahweh-- that this isn't what the NT means when it says "god". Arius' bishop was named Alexander and he strongly disagreed. Alexander said that Jesus was fully God and had all the divine characteristics. So he told Arius to stop teaching his heresy. Arius refused.

Because of Arius' refusal to obey his bishop, it became a world argument. Churches all over the world discussed the theological argument and Arius' rebellion. It was said that every butcher and bread maker on the streets were hotly arguing the nature of the Son. Athenatius became the prime charismatic theologian on the other side, and promoted Trinitarianism-- that Jesus had exactly the same nature as the Father, but they were different persons, using language that was created by Tertullian. And so the debate became even hotter, because Athenatius was a popular fiery preacher.

This is where Constantine comes in. He was a believer in paganism that used his army to unite the Roman Empire, and did so by melding his worship of the Sun with Christianity. He changed the Christian worship to the first day of the week ('Sun' day) so the sun worshippers and Christians would worship on the same day. He also promoted a symbol-- called the "Chi Rho", which was a symbol that would both represent Christ and the Rising Sun. In Rome, they promoted Christmas on the same day as an important Sun holiday-- "The Day of the Ascending Sun", on the winter solstice.

Christian unity was a great interest of Constantine, because he wanted to unify the Roman Empire and fully a third of his empire was Christian. So when he saw this debate tearing apart Christian unity, he had to do something about it. So he arranged for the bishops to call a synod about the issue and he arranged for himself to be the moderator of the synod. So it was held in Nyssia, which was only a short distance from where he lived in Constantinople. The debate was as political as well as theological, and dealt with the rebellion of Arius as well as the theology that he promoted.

In the end, Arius was disciplined, not because of his theology, but because of his refusal to obey his bishop. And there is a famous creed that came out of this debate, called the Nyssian Creed.We need to remember that the creed was supposed to unite the dividing church, not take sides. So almost all of the language we would be in agreement with all the theology of Athenatius and of Arius, except one word "esse", which means "essence". Arius would agree that Jesus is by nature divine and that he created the world, but he would disagree that the Son was of the same basic essence or nature of the Father. But this is what the creed stated. The creed was acclaimed by most of the bishops, although many people of the Arian camp disagreed.

This debate did not by any means end with the creed. Depending on which theology was on top, either Arius or Athenatius were exiled at various times over the next 40 years. There were wars fought over this debate.

But I want to make it clear-- the nature of Jesus is not clearly taught in the NT. One can either be Trinitarian or Arian and still hold to the text. I don't believe that one can be Unitarian, since they deny the pre-existence of Jesus, but there is a well respected Bible scholar who came to that conclusion from the text, although I do not find his arguments persuasive. But to demand that one cannot be saved unless we have a Trinitarian understanding of the text is not biblical. Rather, we need to look at this debate as Romans 14 and 15 would have us do-- let us not judge the other party, but hold to our own convictions without destroying the other brother.

1 comment:

messian dread not said...

Well, a related Trinitarian issue, is, Are Rastafarians Christian, pagan, or are Christians Pagan?

There is another view than the idea that “Christianity” is pagan; it is the view that the Roman Church and its Protestant daughters are Pagan, but that true adherence to the teaching of Christ Jesus Words Only, is neither pagan nor polytheistic and wanton. It is Judaism corrected by revelation through Yeshua Messiah.

This is debated at:

Messian Dread: Rasfafari V. the Pagan Cult