TRINITY DOCTRINE: DECONSTRUCTED?
As a foundational teaching, the Trinity doctrine has been woven into mainstream Christianity since the Council of Nicea convened by Emperor Constantine in 325 C.E. in Bithynia(1). Because of disputes among church leaders, the first ecumenical council of Nicea was the first effort to attain consensus in the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom.(2). Its main accomplishments were settlement of the Christological issue of the nature of the Son of God and his relationship to God the Father (3). It describes the belief in Christian theology that the one God of the universe is comprised of three persons: the Father, the Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit (4). The early church father Tertullian (c. 155-230), who wrote in Latin, is believed to have first used the term trinity to describe the God of the Bible (5).
While this doctrine is “radioactive” to bring up, Pres. FDR in his first inaugural address has a wise rejoinder, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself“(6). Indeed, in an atmosphere of freedom, fear should not paralyze anyone as we search for the truth. How this theology came about is a subject worthy of review for all students of history. Knowing what happened at the time it was established gives us an inclination of the controversy that gave rise to this doctrine. Can those questions that were contentious and overwhelming at that time among church leaders be resolved with what we know today? What was the basic underlying concept and difference among them that was the crux of their contention?
This doctrine was formulated in the 4th century during the Christological debates between Arius and Athanasius. At the core of the controversy was the nature of the Father and Son and their relationship. The terms homoousios, homoiousios and heterousious (same substance/cosubstantial vs. similar and different substance) developed and came to be used to explain varying interpretations. All of these positions and the almost innumerable variations on them which developed in the 4th century AD were strongly and tenaciously opposed by Athanasius and other pro-Nicenes who insisted on the doctrine of the homoousian (or as it is called in modern terms consubstantiality), eventually prevailing in the struggle to define the dogma of the Orthodox Church for the next two millennia when its use was confirmed by the First Council of Constantinople in 381 or 383. Origen Adamantius (184/185 – 253/254), along with the prominent “Origenists” Didymus the Blind and Evagrius Ponticus, were declared anathema in 553 CE by the Second Council of Constantinople (7). Origen seems to have been the first ecclesiastical writer to use the word “homoousios” in a nontrinitarian context, but it is evident in his writings that he considered the Son’s divinity lesser than the Father’s, since he even calls the Son “a creature”(8). The controversy continued through centuries that followed, even to this day.
From the preceding prolegomenon, let us explore excerpts from historical vignettes. On the subject of Arianism, the Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica wrote (9):
” Arius’ basic premise was the uniqueness of God, who is alone self-existent and immutable; the Son, who is not self-existent, cannot be God. The controversy seemed to have been brought to an end by the Council of Nicaea (AD 325), which condemned Arius and his teaching and issued a creed to safeguard orthodox Christian belief. This creed states that the Son is homoousion to Patri (“of one substance with the Father”), thus declaring him to be all that the Father is: he is completely divine. In fact, however, this was only the beginning of a long-protracted dispute. From 325 to 337, when the emperor Constantine died, the Arian leaders, exiled after the Council of Nicaea, tried by intrigue to return to their churches and sees and to banish their enemies. They were partly successful. From 337 to 350, Constans, sympathetic to the orthodox Christians, was emperor in the West, and Constantius II, sympathetic to the Arians, was emperor in the East. At a church council held at Antioch (341), an affirmation of faith that omitted the homoousion clause was issued. Another church council was held at Sardica (modern Sofia) in 342, but little was achieved by either council. In 350 Constantius became sole ruler of the empire, and under his leadership the Nicene party (orthodox Christians) was largely crushed. The extreme Arians then declared that the Son was “unlike” (anomoios) the Father. These anomoeans succeeded in having their views endorsed at Sirmium in 357, but their extremism stimulated the moderates, who asserted that the Son was “of similar substance” (homoiousios) with the Father. Constantius at first supported these homoiousians but soon transferred his support to the homoeans, led by Acacius, who affirmed that the Son was “like” (homoios) the Father. Their views were approved in 360 at Constantinople, where all previous creeds were rejected, the term ousia (“substance,” or “stuff”) was repudiated, and a statement of faith was issued stating that the Son was “like the Father who begot him.” After Constantius’ death (361), the orthodox Christian majority in the West consolidated its position. The persecution of orthodox Christians conducted by the (Arian) emperor Valens (364–378) in the East and the success of the teaching of Basil the Great of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus led the homoiousian majority in the East to realize its fundamental agreement with the Nicene party. When the emperors Gratian (367–383) and Theodosius I (379–395) took up the defense of orthodoxy, Arianism collapsed. The Emperor Theodosius had published an edict, prior to the Council of Constantinople, declaring that the Nicene Creed was the legitimate doctrine and that those opposed to it were heretics (10). In 381 the second ecumenical council met at Constantinople. Arianism was proscribed, and a statement of faith, the Nicene Creed, was approved.”
Coalescing of Powers:
Notice that this changing adoption of religious concepts was influenced to a large degree by secular powers at a particular time, e.g., Emperors Constantine, Constans of the West, Constantius II of the East, Valens, Gratian and Theodosius. Civil and religious authorities were together, akin to “cronyism” and “symbiosis“, to impose religious beliefs using secular power. On those who committed heresy, “heretics did not work outside the Christian community – they counted themselves as faithful Christians attempting to explain the gospel in terms their contemporaries might understand” (11).
Without taking either side, one sees that the trunk-of-the-tree controversy of Trinity Doctrine emanates from two postulates, viz.,
1. Reconciling with “monotheism” the concept that the Father is God, Jesus Christ is God and the Spirit is God.
The doctrine of the Trinity was formally developed in the early church in reaction to “errant teaching” on the nature of God as found in Arianism. Arianism attempted to protect monotheism (the belief in one God) by denying the full deity of Jesus, a belief most Christians hold at this time. Arianism taught that Jesus was divine, but that he was a lesser deity than the Father. To affirm the Church’s stance on the nature of God, the Trinity was formally stated in the Nicene Creed(325 A.D.) and the later Athanasian Creed. As a result of these early ecumenical creeds, any departure from the Christian doctrine of the Trinity was considered heresy. These creeds affirm the early Christian conviction that Jesus was God. Arianism caused the church to dogmatically affirm what was already believed and inherent to the earliest of Christian theology (12).
Essential to the Trinity Doctrine is that there is one and only one God. It is essential because it was the conviction of monotheism (Shema doctrine)- that there is one God – that fact drove the early Christians to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity from Scripture. More importantly, monotheism is the teaching found in the Bible.(Trinity is not in the Bible) Scripture is clear that there is only one God: “There is no other God besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:21-22; see also 44:6-8; Exodus 15:11; Deuteronomy 4:35; 6:4-5; 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:2; 1 Kings 8:60).
Fundamental to the Judaism of the OT (and of today) is the Shema. It is found in Deuteronomy 6 and part of it says, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one,” (Deut 6:4). The understanding of monotheism is at the heart of this passage, and it was at the core of the early Christians’ understanding of the nature of God.The three persons of the Godhead share the same spirit-essence. With this understanding, the doctrine of the Trinity continues to assert monotheism, an essential and easily found belief within the Scripture. Ontologically, each of the three members of the Trinity possess the same essential nature. Again, along with a monotheistic understanding, there is one and only one being, that is, God. The doctrine of the Trinity must remain grounded in God’s Word. Roger Olson sums it up when he says, “While it is true that no passage of Scripture spells out the doctrine of the Trinity, it is also true that the whole of Scripture’s witness to who God is and who Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit make no sense at all without the model of the Trinity and that all alternative concepts end up doing violence to some essential aspect of revelation, Christian experience and possibly even reason itself,” (13).
2. Nature of the Father/Son and which one has self-existence.
Notice that Arius’ belief countered that of others, especially Athanasius, because of his concept at that time of what constitutes the word “God”. The Son cannot be God according to Arius, because there is only “one God”, Jesus is not self-existent and therefore created. On the other hand, Athanasius and other pro-Nicene who believe that the Father is God, the Son is God and the Spirit is God reconciled monotheism through a new concept of “Trinity”.
What is God?
But, can all of these Arius-Athanasius discrepancies be resolved by knowing exactly ” What is God?” What really constitutes the word “God”?. Do we really grok what the etymology of the original word translated to English? The answer may have been “lost in translation”. In the article “What is God?” (14), this controversy may finally be resolved by restoring the meaning of the original Hebraic words Elohim, YHVH, El Shaddai. In its summary:
1.Elohiym/Theos refers to a composite of powers, the sum of divine and powerful beings, the totality of all attributes of deity. It is a generic term that may apply to a particular being. When it does, the specific name of that Elohim is identified, e.g., YHVH ELOHIM.
2. Most of the time, Elohiym in the Old Testament refers to a specific YHVH Elohiym and Theos in the New Testament refers specifically to God the Father. At other times, it refers to those others in the generic Elohiym/Theos, i.e. Jesus, angels, humans.
3. In general, Elohiym/Theos is collective and not a selective term; common and not a proper name; inclusive and not exclusive; generic not proprietary; composite and not specific.
4. The usage and/or context of the word explains the intended meaning, whether plural/singular or numerical plurality/multiplicity of power, rank or position/function.
5. The word God/Elohim, as originally written, includes different species, levels, class or rank. At the highest level is the Father, followed by Son(s) of God, then angelic rank, and the lowest is man. However, man will be transformed into “sons/children of God”, spirit-composed at resurrection and higher than angelic-class.
In “FATHER’S DAY_USA.2014” (15), the God of Old Testament was introduced to Abraham as El Shaddai, but to Moses he was YHVH ELOHIM. He was identified with specificity. This God in the Old Testament, the God “above all gods“, was the only one Israel was commanded to worship thus directing them away from polytheism of that era. The “Shema doctrine” was based on this. According to John, YHVH the Creator was also the “Word“who incarnated into the Messiah, the Christ. In contrast, in the New Testament, when the word God was used it almost invariably refers to the “Father” of Jesus and of us all. Truly, “God is one” (Shema) because it referred only and specifically to El Shaddai/YHVH/Word/Christ Jesus. He was “above all gods” known at that time; no one then knew about the “Father” we know today. Israel knew that the Creator and the One who Fathered them was YHVH. The Israelites did not have knowledge that YHVH has a Father. But, when the “Father/Son” relationship was introduced in the river Jordan at Jesus’ baptism,(16) Jesus understood and deferred to the authority of a higher power, i.e., the Father. They are clearly separate and distinct from one another. Angels, kings and humans are classified as “gods“. In the New Testament, Jesus, while full of the “Spirit of the Father”, was completely human and flesh-composed for his purpose as a “sacrificial Lamb”. As a human being, he was also classified as “god“, yet he died because he was flesh-composed. After his resurrection, he took on a ” new creation”, “Son of God“, spirit-composed, eternal, and with all the powers given by the Father (17). The Father, as He has created all “visible and invisible” through the Son (YHVH), is now creating a “kingdom of God”, composed of spirit-beings higher than the angelic-class (18). What is being created is “Sonship“, children of God. This “new creation” is not a plant- kingdom, not an animal-kingdom nor a human-kingdom. Rather, it is a “God-kingdom” with a specific kind much higher than angelic “species of god“. GOD the FATHER is expanding that kingdom into many “firstfruits“and “latter-fruits”. In contrast, the Trinity Doctrine limits that God-kingdom into three. Whereas, the truth is that many are in the process of developing into the “body of Christ”, this “new creation“, Jesus first, then others. This is the destiny of all mankind (19). The ” world to come” will not be “subject to angels” as our current world is, but to this “new kind“. (Heb. 2:5)
Looking back with a “retroscope”, we can now understand how and why well-meaning church leaders of earlier centuries have variance in understanding. Arius et.al stumbled because of his assumption that Jesus, being subservient to the Father and that God is One (Shema doctrine), cannot be God also. Contrariwise, Athanasius et. al misapplied the facts that the Father is God, Jesus is God and extended divinity even to the Spirit, so that a new concept emerged, the Trinity Doctrine, a doctrine that is limiting instead of expansive. By observation, we can see that knowledge is progressive; God does not give out all truth at the same time. Truth has a timeline. Even Israel did not recognize that Jesus was YHVH CREATOR. Peter did not realize that even Gentiles can be “grafted” to Israel and receive the same promise to Abraham.(Romans11:11-36, Acts 15:7-9), as well as their differences about circumcision. But, in time, they were united in understanding these aforementioned things. In much the same way, early in the Christian era, there were disputes on interpretation. But, now that we know, “What is God?, the Trinity Doctrine has been “deconstructed“. There is no need to “personify” the Spirit as it is active in all members of the God-Family. As Job said, before I “hear” you, now I “see” you.(Job 42:5)
With these foregoing facts of history and biblical references, one can now explain how the Father is God, Jesus Christ is God and still reconcile with “oneness or Shema” doctrine without concocting a concept as “Trinity Doctrine”. The Shema refers to only one God of the Old Testament, specifically identified as YHVH, EL SHADDAI, CREATOR, WORD, JESUS CHRIST. Israel did not know and was not introduced in an official manner to the FATHER by Jesus until New Testament times. This generation is blessed for receiving this understanding unlike our predecessors.
May God bless all of us in search of the truth.
1. Retrieved from:http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bithynia
2. Kieckhefer, Richard (1989), “Papacy”, in Strayer, Joseph Reese, Dictionary of the Middle
Ages 9, Charles Scribner’s Sons, ISBN 978-0-684-18278-0
3. “Council of Nicaea”, p.39, Encyclopedia Britannica, 2014
4. Retrieved from:http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/beliefs/trinity.htm
6. Retrieved from: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5057/
7. The New Catholic Encyclopedia (Detroit: Gale, 2003). ISBN 978-0-7876-4004-0
8. Pelikan, Jaroslav (1971), The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine 1,
The Chicago University Press, p. 191.
9. Retrieved from: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/34124/Arianism.
10. Friell, G., Williams, S., Theodosian Code 16:2, 1, Theodosius: The Empire at Bay, London,
11.Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, p. 121
12. Retrieved from: http://www.theopedia.com/Trinity
13.The Mosaic of Christian Belief, p. 139
14. Retrieved from: https://fact-s.net/2014/06/29/what-is-god-2/
15. Retrieved from: https://fact-s.net/2014/06/13/fathers-day_usa-3/
16. Retrieved from: https://fact-s.net/2014/08/06/passion-of-christ/
17. Retrieved from: https://fact-s.net/2014/03/25/son-of-god-2/
18. Retrieved from: https://fact-s.net/2014/07/12/deification-of-man-3/
19. Retrieved from: https://fact-s.net/2011/05/21/the-destiny-of-man/