ANSWERS FROM THE BIBLE
ANSWERS FROM THE BIBLE Was the Trinity Invented by the Early Church?
Many believe this to be true, but is it? This article will give you answers from both historical and biblical perspectives.
Answers to the Trinitarian Debate By Henry Lepke
INTRODUCTION Was the Trinity an Invention of the early church? Trying to understand a God who is beyond our comprehension is a difficult task. He has revealed Himself to us in many ways, and yet we cannot fully understand everything about Him. Therefore the Trinity remains somewhat of a mystery. Has this doctrine been invented by the early church? The Jews say, “Yes!” Israel conceives Jehovah as being one God. Many others would agree. Neither did the early Christians have a Trinitarian doctrine set in stone. And yet from the very beginning they held to the deity of their Lord Jesus Christ. The influence of heresy finally forced Christian leaders to state more precisely what they believed and to defend their faith by way of argument. The influence of pagan philosophies was strong, and many denied the full deity of Christ and/or viewed the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force. This led to different views about the Godhead, which were finally put to rest in AD381 at the Council of Constantinople. Ca. 350 years after Christ’s death and resurrection, Father, Son and Holy Spirit were finally declared to be one God existing in three persons. This resolution gave birth to the name of ‘Trinity.’
ANSWERS FROM THE BIBLE
The following will examine this debate in a nutshell. It will shed some light on historical happenings before answering our question with evidence from Scripture, both Old and New Testaments.
ANSWERS FROM HISTORY Many have claimed that the Trinity is an invention of the early church. The reasons underlying their statement, as well as the validity of their claim, will be examined in this article. Would it be reasonable to expect human beings to completely understand the mysteries of the Godhead when they cannot even truly understand themselves and the rest of creation around them? The obvious answer is, “No.” Many aspects of God will remain a mystery while we exist in this human body. What can be known and understood depends primarily on two factors: (1) what God has revealed to us about himself, and (2) whether we are prepared to examine the evidence, or whether we remain biased due to pre-existing (mis) conceptions and/or philosophies we hold dear. The Jews, for example, have always been monotheistic and refer to Deut. 3:13-15; 6:4; and 20:2-3 to ‘prove’ that Jehovah is ONE God. Their mind is therefore closed to the concept of a triune God, and their accusations against early Christians of having two Gods, i.e. Jehovah and Jesus, is understandable. Pagan ideas of a plurality of gods also surrounded the early Christians so that, during the first three centuries of the Christian era, theological discussion was centered almost entirely on the relationship between Father and Son, even to the almost complete neglect of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Apostolic teaching (AD33-100) clearly accepted the full and real deity of Jesus as proven by New Testament writings, which contain many statements to this effect and include the triune baptismal formula in Matt.28:19.1 The apostolic fathers (AD100-150) also were very passionate about Christ’s deity and preexistence, yet did not form any theological definitions.2 Persecution and heresy, however, soon forced Christian leaders to state more precisely what they believed and to defend their faith by way of apologetics. Thus the process of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity took place over time. One of the heresies leading to apologetic definitions was Dynamic Monarchianism, which taught that divine power came upon the man Jesus, who was therefore not God in the strict sense of the word.3 Another heresy was Subordinationism, which contended that Jesus was a separate entity altogether. Since there could only be one God, Jesus could not share the divine essence.4 During the second and third centuries, the influence of Stoic and Platonic thought also created confusion and caused many to deny the full Deity of Christ. The attempt of this heresy was to reduce Him to a created being or else view his body as an illusion. Gnosticism, for example, a mixture of pagan philosophy (especially Platonism) and Oriental mysticism, proclaimed all matter to be evil; hence Christ’s body must be an illusion. This type of thinking developed a strong influence among church leaders and was instrumental in developing more formal rules of faith.
ANSWERS FROM THE BIBLE
The development of a Trinitarian doctrine, however, was the outcome of trying to reconcile the two initial articles of the Christian faith: the oneness of God and the Deity of Christ. Because of the claims Christ had made about Himself, the authority He had assumed, the miracles He had worked, and the glory He had displayed (particularly in His resurrection), early Christians were practically unanimous in their recognition of Him as truly God. This conviction, together with the inferred statements of Trinity in both baptismal formula and apostolic benediction, eventually produced the need for a more formal Trinitarian doctrine. Four different views of the Godhead had emerged, all brought about by trying to reconcile the difficult concept of one God existing in three persons. They contended for supremacy, but which one was correct? The first view was developed by Sabellius during the early 3rd century. He taught a simplified view of the Godhead, which became known as Sabellianism, modalism or modalistic monarchianism. His concept claims that there is one supreme monarch, God, who reveals Himself to us in three different modes. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are but different names for a unified but simplex God. 5 This view denies the reality of personal relationship, love and communication within the Godhead, which is the foundation for a world that mirrors these attributes. The second view of the Godhead was first made popular by Arius around AD300 and found great acclaim among Christianity. Called Arianism, subordinationism or unitarianism, it states that ‘threeness in oneness’ is selfcontradictory and violates the biblical principle of a monotheistic God. The inherent oneness of God’s nature is viewed as properly identifiable only with the Father. The son is merely a created being, and the holy spirit is an impersonal force. Neither the son nor the spirit shares the Father’s divinity. This view was rejected as heresy by the church at the Council of Nicaea in AD325 but has persisted among various groups to the present day. Jehovah’s Witnesses are one such example. A third view of the Godhead assigned deity to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit but then denied their unity. The end effect was the perceived existence of three separate gods. The church struggled. Their attempts of extinguishing Arianism had not only failed, but the heresy had expanded. And to make matters worse, Macedonianism had emerged as another force, which subordinated the Holy Spirit in much the manner as Arianism had done with Christ. 6 But one by one the church rejected all these views as heretical and formulated a fourth concept consistent with Scripture. At the Council of Constantinople in AD381, Arianism was once again refuted as a heresy, and the Nicene Creed was reaffirmed. The Council assigned definite deity to the Holy Spirit. This meant that the major conflicts over Trinitarianism were resolved within the church, although debates regarding the person of Christ continued until Chalcedon in AD451.7
ANSWERS FROM THE BIBLE
ANSWERS FROM THE BIBLE God can only be known to the extent He chooses to reveal Himself to us, and no amount of philosophical thought will provide a substitute. While some of God’s attributes may be understood by observing nature, more specific knowledge can only be gleaned from Scripture. It tells us that God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, and that the Son thus modeled God among men. The only evidence we have to examine the ‘facts’ of the Trinity is therefore found in the Word of God, the Bible. Scripture never uses the word ‘Trinity,’ and so the accusation that the early church invented this terminology is actually correct. Having said that, however, does not mean that the concept itself is also invented. A systematic theological study of Scripture will simultaneously assert the following: There is only one God. And yet the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all spoken of as Deity – an apparent contradiction. Both oneness and threeness of God are equally affirmed, and all three are spoken of as eternal. All three are of the same essence and neither inferior nor superior to one another in that aspect. Yet at the same time, the Son is said to be submissive to the Father, and the Spirit is shown as proceeding from both the Father and the Son. Despite these seeming contradictions, Scripture teaches that all three are identical in nature, and that they cooperate in function without denying their distinctions as separate persons in the Godhead. God exists ‘undivided in divided persons,’8 a concept that finds expression in the word ‘Trinity.’ At this point the reader may say, “But where are the Scriptures to support these claims?” Here they are…
The Trinitarian concept is foreshadowed in the Old Testament The Old Testament strongly proclaims that, “Hear, O Israel; The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut.6:4; 3:13-15; 20:2-3). But it also alludes to God being more than one. As a matter of fact, God refers to Himself as “us” in the following passages: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness...” Gen.1:26 “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil...” Gen.3:22 “Come let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” Gen.11:7 And maybe most convincingly, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us...” Isa.6:8 Furthermore, the ‘Angel [messenger] of the LORD’ is also called ‘God’ or ‘the LORD’, being a messenger that is distinct from God, yet can be referred to as God.9 The following passages can substantiate this claim: Gen.16:11-13; Ex. 3:2-6; 23:20-22; Num.22:35,38; and Judg.2:1-2; 6:11,14. Some believe that this Angel of the LORD may refer to the Son in his pre-incarnate state.
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And then there are many Old Testament references to the Spirit of God: Gen.1:1-2, Isa.61:1; 48:16; Ne.9:20; Ps.139:7 and others. An objection to these verses has been raised by saying that God is including the angels when referring to a plural ‘us.’ But this position cannot be upheld because angels were neither involved in creation nor are they spoken of in Scripture as having been made in God’s image. On the other hand, Col.1:16 establishes that all things were created through and for the Son. Psalm 45:6-7 and Psalm 110-1 also speak of more than one person who is called God, and who is addressed as such by the Almighty. While the above passages do not employ the term ‘Trinity,’ they nonetheless teach the concept of ‘unity in diversity’ in relation to God. This Old Testament allusion to plurality in the Godhead should not surprise us. After all, it is in keeping with God’s progressive way of revelation. The concept of plurality is revealed more fully during the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, and then through those whom Jesus has taught, the New Testament writers.
The Trinitarian Concept is revealed more clearly in the New Testament Jesus said, ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father...’ and regarding the Spirit He promised that the Father would in His name send the Holy Spirit, who in turn would teach the disciples and remind them of the things Jesus had said. This shows the Holy Spirit to be a person, since a force cannot teach and remind. The word ‘He’ is used regularly of the Holy Spirit, and roles ascribed to Him such as counselor, teacher, giver of gifts (1Cor.12:1) and adviser (Acts 15:28; 16:6) also show Him to be a personal being. The Spirit also knows the thoughts of God (1 Cor.2:11), experiences grief (Eph.4:30) and prays for God’s children (Rom.8:26). Furthermore, the Spirit can be lied to. In Acts 5:3-4, lying to the Holy Spirit (v.3) is equated with lying to God (v.5). Jesus is also referred to as God by Thomas in John 20:28, by Paul in Titus 2:13, and by Peter in 2 Peter 1:1. Isaiah 9:6 refers to Him as ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace,’ thereby equating Jesus with God, with the Everlasting Father (God), as well as with the Holy Spirit whom Jesus Himself calls ‘Counselor’. The apostle John calls Jesus the expression of God, the logos, ‘the Word’ (Jn.1:1-2) and so equates Him with God. And finally, Jesus Himself includes all three (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) in one singular name in the baptismal ‘formula’ (Matt.28:19), thereby establishing their equality and yet separateness. This article has dealt with the Trinitarian question in a nutshell and there are many more verses that could be cited to substantiate this doctrine. To encourage you to investigate this topic further, I have attached a chart with Scripture references showing Jesus to be the Yahweh of the Old Testament.
ANSWERS FROM THE BIBLE
CONCLUSIONS In conclusion it must be admitted that the doctrine of the Trinity is not an easy teaching to understand, and that it cannot be fully comprehended by our finite minds. Therefore it has caused much discussion and contention throughout history, both in and outside of the church. But God has revealed to us in His word that He exists as three distinct persons, but all of one substance, and all coexisting eternally in the union of the Godhead. The name ‘Trinity’, which is used to describe such Godhead, has been invented by the early church, but the existence of God in three persons is not an invention. It is one of the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. Therefore, my response to our initial question is two-fold: ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’ ‘Yes,’ the actual word Trinity is not found in Scripture and was first coined by the early church. And ‘No,’ the concept of Trinity is not an invention of the early church. It is a revelation from God and may be clearly deducted from Scripture.
Don’t forget to check out the attached chart!
1.-8. H. Wayne House, Charts of Christian Theology & Doctrine, (Zondervan; Grand Rapids, 1992), (1-2) p.43; (3-5) p.46; (6-7) p.44; (8) p.46 9. W. Grudem, Systematic Theology (IVP, 1994) BIBLIOGRAPHY
Boettner L., Studies in Theology (The Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co; USA, 1984) Dowley T. (Ed.), The History of Christianity (Lion Publishing; Oxford, 1990) Ferguson S.B. (Ed.), New Dictionary of Theology (IVP; Leicester, 1988) Grudem W., Systematic Theology (IVP; Leicester, 1994) House H. Wayne, Charts of Christian Theology & Doctrine (Zondervan; Grand Rapids, 1992) IVP, The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Part 3 (Tyndale House, Leicester, 1980) Milne B., Know the Truth (IVP, Leicester, 1982)
Henry Lepke Henry lives in Sydney, Australia and serves God through Biblical Rescue Ministry, a counseling and mediation service to church leaders and others in ministry. You can find out more about him at www.BiblicalRescue.org www.HeartbeatPresentations.com