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Is God a Trinity... Part I
Definition Historical Background - How did this incomprehensible doctrine become a litmus test for true belief? Perhaps by relying on other to decide what we should believe

Carol Brooks

Index To All Six Sections

    You Are Here 001orange Part I: Definition and Historical Background, Relying On Others To Decide What We Should Believe

    Part II - Plurality in The Godhead 

    Part III - The Deity of Christ & The Deity of The Holy Spirit

    Part IV: Passages That Supposedly "Prove" the Trinity.

    Part V: The Grammar... Can it legitimately be used to support the idea that the Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Trinity

    Part VI: The Holy Spirit... a Separate Person, Or The Divine Presence And Power Of The Father Himself

    Part VII: The doctrine of the trinity that has remained virtually unchanged to this day found its roots in paganism not the Bible. This largely due to the part played by the Cappadocian Fathers - three ancient Greek philosophers and mystics.

    Part VIII: The Son is "begotten" of the Father, and the Spirit "proceeds" from the Father. A difference yes, but not what The Cappadocian Fathers made it out to be

    Part IX: Summary and Conclusion

 

ON THIS PAGE
Definition and Historical Background
A Commonly Used Litmus Test For Defining True Belief
An "Incomprehensible" Doctrine And An Unreasonable, Untenable Position
Relying On Others To Decide What We Should Believe


The Word
The word 'trinity' comes from the Latin trinitas - a combination of "tri" (triad or three each) and "unitas" (meaning unity or oneness). In other words - a triunity that could describe any group of three closely related or affiliated people.

In prevailing Christian doctrine 'trinity' is used for the belief that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit constitute one God.


The Doctrine

The doctrine of the trinity is one of mainstream Christianity's most universally accepted and hallowed doctrines held sacrosanct by Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox believers alike. From about the 4th century AD, the standard position of the church is that the trinity is only one God who exists as three distinct, but equal, Persons. This is very different from Tritheism (three separate Gods), or Modalism (one God wearing three hats).

In other words, God is a single Being who simultaneously exists as three Divine persons... The Father (the Ancient of Days); the Son (the eternal Logos, incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth); and the Holy Spirit (the Paraclete). Each member of the Trinity exists as a co-equal member of the Godhead sharing a single Divine essence or nature. All three are uncreated, limitless, eternal, and omnipotent

Seeing God as one and three at the same time is quite obviously a contradiction that Christian 'scholars' attempt to get around by some artful maneuvering. And by this I do not wish to state or imply that they are being willfully dishonest but that their beliefs are so firmly entrenched that any verse, idea, or explanation (however ridiculous) is grasped with both hands. In this case, Matt Perman, former director of strategy at desiringgod.org claims that God is not one and three in the same way.

    "How is God one? He is one in essence. How is God three? He is three in Person. Essence and person are not the same thing. God is one in a certain way (essence) and three in a different way (person). Since God is one in a different way than He is three, the Trinity is not a contradiction. There would only be a contradiction if we said that God is three in the same way that He is one".  [01]

    Note: "Essence" is the intrinsic and fundamental nature of something making it what it is.

Although most people cannot wrap their heads around this kind of convoluted explanation, the vast majority of Christians believe the trinity to be an unassailable and inviolable doctrine that comes straight from the pages of Scripture itself. (Also See Calvinism)

But does it?

Perhaps our first clue should come from the fact that not only is the word "trinity" absent from the Bible, but other commonly used phrases such as "three persons", "one essence", "one substance", "three in one," are also curiously missing.

So where did these phrases come from? As a matter of fact where did the idea that there are three co-equal members in the Godhead originate?


Historical Background
Those who may believe that the doctrine of the trinity has existed in its present form from the time of the first apostles may be surprised to learn that it didn't. The doctrine actually happened in stages. It evolved in the late first century, then gradually gained momentum in the subsequent three hundred years or so, taking final shape in 381 AD.

    In his apology to Autolycus, written to a pagan friend, Theophilus the 7th Bishop of Antioch (c. 169–c. 183), used the Greek "he trias" (the Triad) to refer to God, God's Logos (Jesus), and God's Sophia (Holy Spirit).

    However, it was probably Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 AD), a prolific early Christian author from Carthage and the oldest extant Latin writer, who first used the Latin word trinitas, to refer to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. See Footnote on Tertullian

    It was finally affirmed as an article of faith by the Nicene-Constantinopolitan (325/381) and Athanasian creeds (circa 500), both of which attempted to standardize belief in the face of differing opinions.

Besides which the final form was aimed at countering claims that Christians worshipped three gods.

Defending Monotheism
As a historian, Christian theologian, and author of several books on theology and history, Alister E. McGrath tells us that

    Christianity came into existence in a polytheistic world, where belief in the existence of many gods was commonplace. Part of the task of the earliest Christian writers appears to have been to distinguish the Christian god from other gods in the religious marketplace. At some point, it had to be asked which god Christians were talking about, and how this god related to the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," who figures so prominently in the Old Testament. The doctrine of the Trinity appears to have been, in part, a response to the pressure to identify the god that Christians theologians were speaking about. [02]

Bruce Manning Metzger (February 9, 1914 – February 13, 2007) is widely considered one of the most influential New Testament scholars of the 20th century. He served on the board of the American Bible Society and United Bible Societies, was a member of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) translation team, general editor of the NRSV, and one of the editors of the Oxford Companion to the Bible that says... (All Emphasis Added)

    "... the developed concept of three coequal partners in the Godhead found in later creedal formulations cannot be clearly detected within the confines of the canon. Later believers systemized the diverse references to God, Jesus and the Spirit found in the New Testament in order to fight against heretical tendencies of how the three are related. Elaboration on the concept of a Trinity also serves to defend the church against charges of di- or tritheism. Since the Christians have come to worship Jesus as god (Pliny, Epistle 96.7), how can they claim to be continuing the monotheistic tradition of the God of Israel? Various answers are suggested, debated, and rejected as heretical, but the idea of a Trinity - one God subsisting in three persons and one substance - ultimately prevails. [03]

I find this statement extremely telling. Not only does it say that the concept of three coequal partners in the Godhead is difficult to detect in the canon, but adds that the concept was developed because the church needed to defend itself against charges that Christians worshipped two or three Gods. After debating various suggestions and rejecting most as heretical, the church ultimately settled on the idea of the trinity, which has thereafter been taught as Gospel truth by the mainstream church.

The 325 AD Council of Nicaea declared that the Son is "of the same substance" as the Father...

    But so absorbed had the Council been in working out the doctrine concerning the Person of Christ that it omitted to make any definite statement concerning the Holy Spirit.

    It was but natural that until the question concerning the Person and nature of the Son was settled, not much progress could be made in the development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The defect of the Nicene Creed was remedied, however, by the Second Ecumenical Council, which met at Constantinople in 381, and included in its creed the statement: "We believe in the Holy Ghost, who is the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who, with the Father and Son, together is worshipped and glorified, who spake by the prophets." [04]

However, there was a lot more to this Second Ecumenical Council that the reader should be aware of.

But, that will have to wait because the first thing to do is thoroughly check whether or not the Bible actually teaches one God in three persons. This is particularly important because the doctrine of the Trinity, as defined by the Second Ecumenical Council, is so set in stone that, all too often, it has become...


A Commonly Used Litmus Test For Defining True Belief...
Centuries ago, Thomas Aquinas (January 1225 – March 1274) opined that "it is impossible to believe explicitly in the mystery of Christ without faith in the Trinity, for the mystery of Christ includes that the Son of God took flesh, that he renewed the world through the grace of the Holy Spirit, and again, that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit'.

And not much has changed since.

The vast majority of Christians consider the doctrine of the Trinity to be divine truth and a foundational part of the Christian faith. So much so, that many churches, religious organizations, and even individual Christians, consider it to be so sacred and fundamental that they use it as a litmus test for defining who is, and who isn't a true Christian. In other words... you cannot be saved if you don't believe in the Trinity.

For example, one question posted on the Grace to you web site is "Can you become a Christian if you deny the Trinity?", to which the reply was...

    I would answer, "No." If you don't believe in the Trinity, then you don't understand who God is. You may say the word "God" but you don't understand His nature. Second, you couldn't possibly understand who Christ is--that He is God in human flesh. The Incarnation of Christ is an essential component of the biblical gospel, as John 1:1-14 and many other biblical passages make clear. To deny the Trinity is to deny the Incarnation. And to deny the Incarnation is to wrongly understand the true gospel. [05]

Harold Lindsell and Charles Woodbridge, authors of A Handbook of Christian Truth, say... (Underlining added)

    The mind of man cannot fully understand the mystery of the Trinity. He who has tried to understand the mystery fully will lose his mind; but he who would deny the Trinity will lose his soul" [06]

According to James White who taught Greek and Systematic Theology and is currently director of Alpha and Omega Ministries (a Christian apologetics organization based in Phoenix, Arizona)

    .. We must know, understand, and love the Trinity to be fully and completely Christian. That is why we say the Trinity of the greatest of God's revealed truths" [07]

I am not sure what "fully and completely" Christian is. Are there degrees of Christianity, which is what the wording suggests? As far as I know, either one is saved, or one isn't. And yes, there are different rewards in the coming kingdom for those that are saved, but they have nothing to do with how well one understands or "loves" the Trinity. [See What And Where is “Heaven”? Part VI ... The Judgment Seat of Christ and Rewards in Heaven]

Here is something I would like the reader to understand. The opinions above - from Thomas Aquinas down - are all probably speaking about the Trinity as there being three equal members of the Godhead which this article disproves. What is interesting is that the very same scholars who claim that one cannot be saved without believing in the Trinity, also make no bones about the fact that the doctrine itself is impossible to grasp or understand

However, this article is NOT disputing that both Christ AND the Holy Spirit are divine.


An "Incomprehensible" Doctrine And An Unreasonable, Untenable Position
Louis Berkhof, a Reformed theologian, who taught for almost four decades at Calvin Theological Seminary and is best known for his Systematic Theology says (Underlining added)

    "The Church confesses the trinity to be a mystery beyond the comprehension of man. The trinity is a mystery, not merely in the Biblical sense of what is a truth, which was formerly hidden but is now revealed; but in the sense that man cannot comprehend it and make it intelligible." [08].

James White writes (Italics in original. Underlining added)

    We withhold fellowship from groups like the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses because they reject the Trinity and replace it with another concept. We hang a person's very salvation upon the acceptance of the doctrine, yet if we are honest with ourselves, we really aren't sure why. ...

    It's the one topic we won't talk about: no one dares question the Trinity for fear of being branded a 'heretic', yet we have all sorts of questions about it and we aren't sure who we can ask. Many believers have asked questions of those they thought we more mature in the faith and have often been confused by the contradictory answers they received...

    "The doctrine is misunderstood as well as ignored. It is so misunderstood that a majority of Christians, when asked, give incorrect and at times downright heretical definitions of the trinity." [09]

I think the next quote pretty much sums up some of the churches intellectually elitist, highbrow and arrogant views

    "Doctrinal development requires rigorous intellectual skills and sound philosophic categories to accurately apply God's revelation" [10]

And, the common man, having been well indoctrinated into believing that those with "rigorous intellectual skills" have to know what they are talking about, accepts and believes what they say as coming from the mouth of God Himself.

 Sadly, most of these 'learned' scholars seem to have forgotten that salvation is not only for the highly educated, but has been extended to all men... including simple people with little book learning and/or not exactly up there on IQ tests.  And by the way, did you ever get the impression that those fishermen from the sea of Galilee had anything approaching "rigorous intellectual skills"

It seems quite ridiculous that when theologians themselves consider the doctrine of the Trinity a widely disputed mystery beyond the comprehension of man, that one can expect someone with considerably less learning or even intelligence, to understand the Trinity.  

That God sent His Son to pay the penalty for our sin, so that we would not have to is comprehensible.

The Trinity... not so much.


Relying On Others To Decide What We Should Believe
A question asked on the Berean Call website was "how can you be sure that your interpretation of the Scriptures is correct, especially when it comes to things that no one can really explain?" The response...

    If by reading I cannot discern "the intended meaning of the Holy Bible," then who can? Was it written only for some elite? Must we trust a pastor, priest, denomination? The Roman Catholic pope and magisterium? How could I or you or anyone else today know to whom to look for the correct interpretation of the Bible? If you are suggesting that no one can know, then God has given us a worthless book. [11]

Sadly, this is exactly what has happened in the church. We tend to look to others... theologians, Bible scholars, pastors, etc. for the correct interpretation of the Bible, most of whom tend to believe that they (and their denomination) are the sole reliable interpreters of Biblical truths, and will defend to the death their version of what the Bible says.

As far as I can tell, most of these supposed truths were decided somewhere back along the line, often many hundreds of years ago. They have then been passed down as Gospel truth, from one generation to the next in one or the other seminary/church/Bible study, with the same proof texts offered and unquestioningly accepted. The result being that when people go to their Bibles, they do so with preconceived idea already firmly in place.

They may never think of the fact that the person who taught the Bible study, preached the sermon, or wrote the book, may not have done any in-depth research for themselves, but obtained their knowledge from someone else who conducted a Bible study, taught at a seminary, or wrote a book. And, in turn, these teachers may not have done any independent research, but learned from someone else who conducted a Bible study, taught at a seminary, or wrote a book.... on and on ad infinitum. 

If we are smart, we had better not hang our hat on the peg labeled 'official church doctrine', on what supposedly orthodox Christians/churches think, believe, or teach, and certainly NOT on what the so called early "church fathers" wrote. And we certainly had better not completely depend on what the learned scholars tell us, however highly respected and/or well known they might be.

The question we need to ask is what the Bible teaches.  And, in order to answer that question, we need to do our own research. Modern software programs have made it relatively easy to examine Hebrew and Greek words and, more importantly, by tracing every occurrence of the word, see how they are used in the Scriptures. There is no question that the study can, and does, get a little complicated and time consuming.

The book of Acts (17:11) describes the people from the city of Berea as

    "...more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so".

These might have been new converts but Paul actually praised then for not taking anyone's word for anything. They knew the only way they could confirm or disprove what they were being taught was by whether or not it agreed with the the Word of God.

Paul also told Thessalonians to examine everything carefully and discard that which was not good.

    But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; (1 Thessalonians 5:21 NASB)

So, let us examine carefully the orthodox doctrine which tells us that there are three person in the Godhead (one God, who exists as three distinct, but equal, persons), and see whether, according to the Scriptures, the doctrine is true.

Let's start with whether or not there is a plurality in the Godhead. According to the Hebrew Scriptures the answer is a resounding Yes!

 

Continue On To Part II - A Plurality in The Godhead. The Hebrew Scriptures very definitely point to more than one Person in the Godhead. However, theologians over simplify the matter when they state that the Biblical evidence permits only one of two conclusion a) Jesus and the Holy Spirit are not Divine, or b) God is a Tri-unity. It's either this or that... take it or leave it. HERE


Foot Note I - Tertullian
Although Tertullian was said to be “passionate, articulate, totally committed”, someone who “boldly taunted the might of the Roman empire, courageously defended oppressed believers, and harshly reprimanded compromising Christians. [12] He was a  notable member of the movement know as Montanism. After long defending the Montanists he left the church to join them. He later established his own sect, known as Tertullianists. Montanism

    "arose in Phrygia (c.172) under the leadership of a certain Montanus and two female prophets, Prisca and Maximillia, whose entranced utterances were deemed oracles of the Holy Spirit. They had an immediate expectation of Judgment Day, and they encouraged ecstatic prophesying and strict asceticism"  [13]

Additionally, although Tertullian's views on the subject is widely debated, I have little doubt that he believed in Transubstantiation. Why else would he warn that a crumb of the bread should not fall on the floor?

    It was heretofore tolerated in some places that communicants should take each one his portion, with his own hand, but now we suffer none to receive this sacrament except at the hand of the minister.... Offerings are made in honour of our departed friends, on the anniversaries of their deaths, which we esteem their true birthdays, as they are born to a better life.  We kneel at other times, but on the Lord's day, and from the Paschal Feast to Pentecost we stand in prayer, nor do we count it lawful to fast on Sundays. We are concerned if even a particle of the wine or bread, made ours, in the Lord's Supper, falls to the ground, by our carelessness. In all the ordinary occasions of life we furrow our foreheads with the sign of the Cross [14] {PLACE IN TEXT}


End Notes
[01] Matt Perman. Understanding The Trinity. January 23, 2006.
http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/articles/what-is-the-doctrine-of-the-trinity

[02] Alister E. McGrath. Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Wiley-Blackwell; 2 edition (July 23, 2012). Paperback. Page 2

[03] The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Editors Bruce M. Metzger and Michael David Coogan. Oxford University Press, USA; First Edition edition (October 14, 1993 Pg 782

[04] Loraine Boettner. The Trinity... Historical Aspects of the Doctrine. © 1999 The Old Time Gospel Ministry.
http://www.theoldtimegospel.org/message3/trin_09.html

[05] GTY Staff. Question: Can You Be a Christian and Deny the Trinity? © 2014 Grace to You. Available online at:
http://www.gty.org/resources/questions/QA519

[06] Harold Lindsell and Charles Woodbridge. A Handbook of Christian Truth: 1953, pp. 51-52 As quoted in Is God a Trinity?
 http://www.biblestudy.org/basicart/is-god-a-mysterious-trinity-no-one-can-understand.html

[07] James White. The Forgotten Trinity, 1998, Bethany House Publishers; First Edition edition (November 1, 1998) Pgs. 14-16

[08] Louis Berkhof. Systematic Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (September 24, 1996). Pg. 89

[09] James White. The Forgotten Trinity, 1998, Bethany House Publishers; First Edition edition (November 1, 1998) Pgs. 14-16

[10] Melinda Penner. The Doctrine of the Trinity at Nicaea and Chalcedon. Apr 5, 2013. Retrieved February 4, 2014 from
http://www.str.org/articles/the-doctrine-of-the-trinity-at-nicaea-and-chalcedon#.Un5oFtLTmCi

[11] https://www.thebereancall.org/content/may-2008-q-and-a-3

[12] Who Was Tertullian? Christianity.com. https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1-300/tertullian-11629598.html

[13] https://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Montanism

[14] ANF03. Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian by Schaff, Philip.
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.iv.vi.xvi.html?highlight=a,particle,of,the,wine,or,bread#highlight

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