The belief that God is one substance, yet three persons, is one of the central doctrines of the Christian religion. The concept of the Trinity is believed by most professing Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant.
A Gallup Poll taken several years ago found that 97% of the American public believed in God. Of that number, 83% believed that God is a Trinity.
Yet for all this belief in the Trinity, it is a doctrine that is not clearly understood by most Christian laymen. In fact, most have neither the desire nor the incentive to understand what their church teaches. Few laymen are aware of any problems with the doctrine of the Trinity. They simply take it for granted leaving the mysterious doctrinal aspects to theologians.
And if the layman were to investigate further, he would be confronted with discouraging statements similar to the following: “The mind of man cannot fully understand the mystery of the Trinity. He who would try to understand the mystery fully will lose his mind. But he who would deny the Trinity will lose his soul” (Harold Lindsell and Charles J. Woodbridge, A Handbook of Christian Truth, pp. 51-52).
Such a statement means that the concept of the Trinity should be accepted or else. But, merely to accept it as doctrine without proving it would be totally contrary to Scripture. God inspired Paul to write: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (I Thess. 5:21).
Peter further admonished Christians: . . “Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asks you a reason of the hope that is in you” (I Peter 3:15).
Therefore the Christian is duty bound to prove whether or not God is a Trinity.
If you were to confine yourself to reading the articles on the Trinity to popular religious literature for laymen, you would conclude that the Trinity is everywhere and clearly taught in the Bible. However, if you were to begin to read what the more technical Bible encyclopedias, dictionaries and books say on the subject you would come to an entire different conclusion. And the more you studied, the more you would find that the Trinity is built on a very shaky foundation indeed.
The problems inherent in clearly explaining the Trinity are expressed in nearly every technical article or book on the subject.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia begins: “It is difficult, in the second half of the 20th century, to offer a clear, objective, and straightforward account of the revelation, doctrinal evolution, and the theological elaboration of the mystery of the Trinity. Trinitarian discussion, Roman Catholic as well as othesr, presents a somewhat unsteady silhouette” (Vol. XIV, p. 295).
But why should the central doctrine of the Christian faith be so difficult to understand? Why should such an important doctrine present an unsteady silhouette? Isn’t there a clear biblical revelation of the doctrine of the Trinity? Didn’t Christ and the apostles plainly teach it?
Surely the Bible would be filled with teachings about such an important subject as the Trinity. But, unfortunately the word “Trinity” never appears in the Bible.
“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” (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, article “Trinity,” p. 3012).
Not only is the word “Trinity” never found in the Bible, there is no substantive proof such a doctrine is even indicated.
In a book on the Trinity, Catholic theologian Karl Rahner recognized that theologians in the past have been “embarrassed by the simple fact that in reality the Scriptures do not explicitly present a doctrine of the ‘imminent’ Trinity (even John’s prologue is no such doctrine)” (The Trinity, p. 22).
Other theologians also recognize the fact that the first chapter of John’s Gospel the prologue clearly shows the pre-existence and divinity of Christ and does not teach the doctrine of the Trinity. After discussing John’s prologue, Dr. William Newton Clarke writes: “There is no Trinity in this; but there is a distinction in the Godhead, a duality in God. This distinction or duality is used as basis for the idea of an only-begotten Son, and a key to the possibility of an incarnation” (Outline of Christian Theology, p. 167).
The first chapter of John’s Gospel clearly shows the pre-existence of Christ. It also illustrates the duality of God. And as Dr. Clarke points out, the key to the possibility of the incarnation the fact that God could become man.
The Apostle John makes plain the unmistakable fact that Jesus Christ is God (John 1:1-4). Yet we find no Trinity discussed in this chapter.
Probably the most notorious scripture used in times past as “proof” of a Trinity is I John 5:7. However, many theologians recognize that this scripture was added to the New Testament manuscripts probably at late as the 8th century A.D.
Notice what Jamieson, Fausset and Brown wrote in their commentary: “The only Greek MSS (manuscripts), in any form which support the words, “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth. . . . .”are the Montfortianus of Dublin, copied evidently from the modern Latin Vulgate; the Ravianus copied from the Complutensian Polyglot; a MS. (manuscript) at Naples, with the words added in the margin by a recent hand; Ottobonianus, 298, of the 15th century, a Greek of which is mere translation of the accompanying Latin. All old versions omit these words.”
The conclusion arrived at in their commentary, written over 100 years ago, are still valid today. More conservatively oriented The New Bible Commentary (Revised) agrees, though “quietly” with Jamieson, Fausset and Brown.” The words are clearly a gloss and are rightly excluded by RSV (Revised Standard Version) even from its margin” (p. 1269).
The editors of Peake’s Commentary on the Bible wax more eloquent in their belief that the words are not part of the original text. “The famous interpolation after ‘three witnesses’ is not printed even in RSV, and rightly. It cites the heavenly testimony of the Father, the logos, and the Holy Spirit, but is never used in the early Trinitarian controversies. No respectable Greek MS contains it. Appearing first in the late 4th century Latin text, it entered the Vulgate and finally the New Testament of Erasmus” (p. 1038).
Scholars clearly recognize that I John 5:7 is not part of the New Testament text. Yet it is still included by some fundamentalists as biblical proof for the Trinity doctrine.
Even the majority of the more recent New Testament translations do not contain the above words. They are not found in Moffatt, Phillips, the Revised Standard Version, Williams, or The Living Bible (a paraphrase).
It is clear, then, that those words are not part of the inspired cannon, but rather were added by a “recent hand.” The two verses in I john should read: “For there are three that bear record, the Spirit, and the water and the blood; and these three agree in one.”
Three things bear record. But what do they bear record to? A Trinity? We shall see.
The Spirit, the water and the blood bear record of the fact that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is living His life over again in us. John clarifies it in verses 11-12. “And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.”
But how do these three elements the Spirit, the water, and the blood specifically bear witness to this basic biblical truth?
“The Spirit bears witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” (Rom. 8:16). Water is representative of baptism, which bears witness of the burial of the old self and the beginning of a new life (Rom. 6:1-6).
The blood represents Christ’s death by crucifixion, which pays the penalty for our sins, reconciling us to God (Rom. 5:9-10).
Now understand why Christ commanded the apostles to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). First of all, Jesus did not command the apostles to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Spirit as an indication that God is a Trinity. No such relationship is indicated in the Bible.
Why, then, were they to baptize using these three names? The answer is clear. They were to baptize in the name of the Father because it is the goodness of God that brings us to repentance (Rom. 2:4), and because the Father is the One “of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named” (Eph. 3:15). In the name of the Son because He is the one who died for our sins, and in the name of the Spirit because God sends His Spirit, making us His begotten Sons (Rom. 8:16).
Many theologians have misunderstood the part that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit play in each person’s salvation. The doctrine of the Trinity is the result of that misunderstanding. The Trinity is not a biblical doctrine. It has no basis in biblical fact. Then how did this doctrine come to be believed by the church?
The ancient idea of monotheism was shattered by the sudden appearance of Jesus Christ on the earth. Here was someone who claimed He was the Son of God. But how could He be? The Jewish people believed for centuries that there was only one God. If the claims of “this Jesus” were accepted, then in their minds their belief would be no different from that of the polytheistic pagans around them. If He were the Son of God, their whole system of monotheism would disintegrate.
When Jesus plainly told certain Jews of His day that He was the Son of God, some were ready to stone Him for blasphemy (John 10:22).
To get around the problem of a plurality in the Godhead, the Jewish community simply rejected Jesus. And to this day, Orthodox Jews will not accept Jesus’ Messiahship. However, the more liberal Jews will at least admit that He was a great man maybe even a prophet.
But the “new” Christian religion was still faced with the problem. How would proponents explain that there was only one God, not two?
“The determining impulse to the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity in the church was the church’s profound conviction of the absolute Deity of Christ, on which as on a pivot the whole Christian concept of God from the first origin of Christianity turned”(International Standard Biblical Encyclopedia, article “Trinity,” p. 3021).
But the Deity of Christ does not mean that a doctrine of the Trinity is necessary.
Many of the early church fathers were thoroughly educated in Greek philosophy, from which they borrowed such non-biblical concepts as dualism and the immortality of the soul. However, most theologians, for obvious reasons, are generally careful to point out that they did not borrow the idea of the Trinity from the Triads of Greek philosophy or those of the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians.
But some are not so careful to make such a distinction. “Although the notion of a Triad or Trinity is characteristic of the Christian religion, it is by no means peculiar to it. In Indian religion, e.g., we meet with the Trinitarian group of Brahma, Siva, and Vishnu; and the Egyptian religion with the Trinitarian group of Osiris, Isis, and Horus, constituting a divine family, like the Father, Mother and Son in medieval Christian pictures. Nor is it only in historical religions that we find God viewed as a Trinity. One recalls in particular the Neo-Platonic view of the Supreme or Ultimate Reality, which was suggested by Plato” (Hastings’ Bible Dictionary, vol. 12, p. 458).
Of course, the fact that someone else had a Trinity does not in itself mean that the Christians borrowed it. McClintock and Strong make the connection a little clearer.
“Toward the end of the 1st century, and during the 2nd, many learned men came over both from Judaism and paganism to Christianity. These brought with them into the Christian schools of theology their Platonic ideas and phraseology” (article “Trinity,” Vol. 10. P. 553).
In his book, A History of Christian Thought, Arthur Cushman McGiffert points out that the main argument against those who believed that there was only one God and that Christ was either an adopted or a created being was that their ideas did not agree with Platonic philosophy. Such teachings were “Offensive to theologians, particularly to those who felt the influence of the Platonic philosophy” (ibid., p. 240).
In the latter half of the 3rd century, Paul of Samosata tried to revive the adoptionist idea that Jesus was a mere man until the Spirit of God came upon Him at baptism making him the Anointed One, or Christ. In his beliefs about the person of Jesus Christ, he “rejected the Platonic realism which underlay most of the Christological speculation of the day” (ibid., p. 243).
At the end of his chapter on the Trinity, McGiffert concludes: “It has been the boast of orthodox theologians that in the doctrine of the Trinity both religion and philosophy come to highest expression” (Vol. I, p. 247). The influence of Platonic philosophy on the Trinity doctrine can hardly be denied.
However, Trinitarian ideas go much further back than Plato. “Though it is usual to speak of the Semitic tribes as monotheistic; yet it is an undoubted fact that more or less all over the world the deities are in triads. This rule applies to eastern and western hemispheres, to north and south. Further, it is observed that, in some mystical way, the triad of three persons is one. The definition of Athanasius (a 4th century Christian) who lived in Egypt, applied to the trinities of all heathen religions” (Egyptian Belief and Modern Thought, by James Bonwick, F.R.G.S. p. 396).
It was Athanasius’ formulation for the Trinity which was adopted by the Catholic Church at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. Athanasius was an Egyptian from Alexandria and his philosophy was also deeply rooted in Platonism.
“The Alexandrian catechetical school, which revered Clement of Alexandria and Origen, the greatest theologians of the Greek Church, as its heads, applied the allegorical method to the explanation of Scripture. Its thought was influenced by Plato: its strong point was theological speculation. Athanasius and the three Cappadocians had been included among its members” (Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church, by Hubert Jedin, p. 29).
In order to explain the relationship of Christ to God the Father, the church fathers felt that it was necessary to use the philosophy of the day. They obviously thought that their religion would be more palatable if they made it sound like the pagan philosophy that was extant at the time. These men were versed in philosophy, and that philosophy colored their understanding of the Bible
It was the doctrines of the Trinity colored by the philosophy of the time that was accepted by the Church in the early part of the 4th century over three hundred years after Christ’s death. Even theologians recognized that the Trinity is a creation of the 4th century, not the first!
“There is recognition on the part of exegetes and Biblical theologians, including a constantly growing number of Roman Catholics, that one should not speak of Trinitarianism, in the New Testament without serious qualification. There is also the closely parallel recognition that when one does speak of unqualified Trinitarianism, one has moved from the period of Christian origins to say the last quadrant of the 4th century. It was only then that the definitive Trinitarian dogma ‘one god in three persons’ became thoroughly assimilated into Christian life and thought” (New Catholic Encyclopedia, article “Trinity,” Vol. 14, p. 295).
It was at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 that two members of the Alexandria congregation, Arius, a priest, who believed that Christ was not a God, but a created being; and Athanasius, a deacon who believed that the Father, Son and Spirit are the same being living in a threefold form (or in three relationships, as a man may be at the same time a father, a son and a brother), presented their cases.
The Council of Nicaea was not called by the church leaders, as one might suppose. It was called by the Emperor Constantine. And he had a far-from-spiritual reason for wanting to solve the dispute that had arisen.
“In 325 the Emperor Constantine called an ecclesiastical council to meet at Nicaea in Bithynia. In the hope of securing for his throne the support of the growing body of Christians he had shown them considerable favor and it was his interest to have the church vigorous and united. The Arian controversy was threatening its unity and menacing its strength. He therefore undertook to put an end to the trouble. It was suggested to him, perhaps by the Spanish bishop Hosius who was influential at court, that if a synod were to meet representing the whole church both east and west, it might be possible to restore harmony. Constantine himself of course neither knew nor cared anything about the matter in dispute but he was eager to bring the controversy to a close, and Hosius’ advice appealed to him as sound” (A History of Christian Thought, Vol. I, p. 258).
The decision as to which of the two men the church was to follow was a more or less arbitrary one. Constantine really didn’t care which choice was made all he wanted was a united church. (Arius was banished, but later recalled by Constantine, examined and found to be without heresy.)
The majority of those present at the council were not ready to take either side in the controversy. “A clearly defined standpoint with regard to this problem the relationship of Christ to God was held only by the attenuated group of Arians and a far from numerous section of delegates, who adhered with unshaken conviction to the Alexandrian (Athanasius) view. The bulk of the members occupied a position between these two extremes. They rejected the formulae of Arius, and declined to accept those of his opponents. The voting was no criterion of the inward conviction of the council” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., article “Nicaea, Council of,” p. 641).
The council rejected Arius’ views, and rightly so, but they had nothing with which to replace it. Thus the ideas of Athanasius also a minority view prevailed. The rejection of Arianism was not blanket acceptance of Athanasius. Yet, the church in all the ensuing centuries had been “stuck,” so to speak, with the job of upholding right or wrong the decision made at Nicaea.
After the council the Trinity became official dogma in the church, but the controversy did not end. In the next few years more Christians were killed by other Christians over that doctrine than were killed by all the pagan emperors of Rome. Yet, for all the fighting and killing, neither of the two parties had a biblical leg to stand on.