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Is God a Trinity... Part I
Definition and Historical Background, Relying On Others 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 I B Plurality in The Godhead, The Deity of Christ & The Deity of The Holy Spirit

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

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

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

    Part V: The Cappadocian Fathers.. The doctrine of the trinity, which has remained virtually unchanged to this day, found its roots in paganism not the Bible. This largely due to the part played by three ancient Greek philosophers and mystics. Part VB: The Cappadocian Fathers... Are both the Son and Spirit derived from the Father in "different ways"? Asceticism and Mysticism. The sad legacy of Neoplatonism.

    Part VI: Summary and Conclusion

 

ON THIS PAGE

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

 

Definition
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 different hats). The Athanasian Creed stressed the unity of the three persons in the one Godhead, but describes each person of the Trinity as uncreated, limitless, eternal, and omnipotent, which served to defend the church against charges of di- or tritheism.

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, and all three persons share a single Divine essence or nature.

Although God is seen as one and three at the same time there is, supposedly, no contradiction since He is not supposed to be one and three in the same way. As expressed by Matt Perman, former director of strategy at Desiring God...

    "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".  [1]

    Note: "essence" is that which makes something what it is

Although most people cannot wrap their heads around, much less explain, the concept of the trinity, the vast majority of Christians believe it to be an unassailable and inviolable doctrine that comes straight from the pages of Scripture itself.

But is this true?


Historical Background
Perhaps, the first order of business is to see how the doctrine of the trinity came about.

The Word
"Trinity", derived from the Latin trinitas (three or a triad). Trinitas is an abstract noun, formed from the adjective trinus (threefold, triple) [2] and the word unitas (the state of being one) an abstract noun formed from unus (one). [3]. It can, in general, be for any group of three things

In his apology to Autolycus, written to a pagan friend (Ad Autolycum 2.15), 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.

However, 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.

The Doctrine
The development of the doctrine of the Trinity happened in stages. It evolved in the late first century, then gradually gained momentum in the subsequent two hundred years or so. 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. Alister E. McGrath holds the chair in theology, ministry, and education at the University of London. As a historian, Christian theologian, and author of several books on theology and history, he 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. [4]

Bruce Manning Metzger (February 9, 1914 – February 13, 2007)  is widely considered one of the most influential New Testament scholars of the 20th century, having served on the board of the American Bible Society and United Bible Societies. He was a member of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) translation team and general editor of the NRSV. He was also one of the editors of the Oxford Companion to the Bible, which 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. [5]

I find this statement extremely telling. Not only does it say that the "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 adopted a term for the relationship between the Son and the Father that, from then on, was seen as the hallmark of orthodoxy; It declared that the Son is "of the same substance" as the Father. Melinda Penner, executive director of Stand to Reason, says... (All Emphasis Added)

    Little discussion took place at the Council of Nicaea regarding the Holy Spirit. First, there was not as much agreement on the relation of the Spirit in the Trinity as there was regarding the Son. Secondly, Athanasius and others who held to an orthodox view understood that once it is established that Jesus is of the same essence as the Father, it naturally follows from the biblical data that the Spirit is as well. Once they demonstrated the Biblical and philosophical possibility of two persons of the divine substance, it was a small step to demonstrate the third person. [6]

This "small step" was taken at the Second Ecumenical Council in 381 AD (Emphasis Added)

    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. Athanasius had taught the true Deity of the Holy Spirit, but many of the writers of the period identified Him with the Logos or Son, while others regarded Him as but the impersonal power or efficacy of God. 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." [7]

The Creed adopted at Constantinople seems the adoption of a Creed already in use, rather than a new addition to the Nicene creed.

Epiphanius of Salamis was bishop of Salamis in Cyprus at the end of the 4th century. His earliest known work is the Ancoratus (the well anchored man), written in 374, about seven years before the Second Ecumenical Council, which includes arguments against Arianism and Origen's teachings. The formula adopted in Constantinople agrees almost word for word with Epiphanius' shorter confession of faith, found at the end of Ancoratus, and which appears to have been the baptismal creed of the Church of Salamis.

However, there is a little more to this Second Ecumenical Council that the reader should be aware of. The background of those who were primarily responsible for the shaping of the doctrine left, from a Biblical and non-Catholic standard, a great deal to be desired, especially since both the ideas and the terms used by the early church found their origins not in the Bible, but in classical Greek concepts of ousia (nature or essence) and hypostasis (entity, person).

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) pointed out 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.

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) (All Emphasis Added)

    .. 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" [8]

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 these certainly do not tie in with how well one understands or "loves" the Trinity.

[See What And Where is “Heaven”?.. Part VII... The Judgment Seat of Christ and Rewards in Heaven]

In any case, how exactly does the common man "understand" any of this, when it is almost universally ....


Acknowledged to Be a "Largely Incomprehensible" Doctrine
However, 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 incomprehensible. 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. [9]

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." [10].

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." [11]

Millard Erickson, professor of Theology at Western Seminary, Portland, and a prolific author whose books include the widely acclaimed systematics work Christian Theology says... (Underlining added)

    "This doctrine in many ways presents strange paradoxes.  It is a widely disputed doctrine, which has provoked discussion throughout all the centuries of the church's existence. It is held by many with great vehemence and vigor. These [advocates] consider it crucial to the Christian faith. Yet many are unsure of the exact meaning of their belief. It was the very first doctrine dealt with systematically by the church, yet it is still one of the most misunderstood and disputed doctrines." [12].

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" [13]

The Catholics certainly agree

    Nor could one grasp the meaning of eternal life, or of the grace that leads to it, without believing in the Trinity, for grace and eternal life are sharing in the Trinitarian life" [14]


An Unreasonable Position?
The question one has to ask is whether it is reasonable (or even possible) to believe that God would deny a person salvation simply because he, or she, is incapable of understanding, or has failed to grasp something that even the most learned theologians admit is incomprehensible. In fact James White admits that most Christians, if asked, would give incorrect and at times "downright heretical definitions of the trinity". [8]

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. 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. In fact, I would have little idea how one would go about explaining the orthodox version of this doctrine, which is about as complicated as it gets.

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

The Trinity... not so much.


Relying On Others To Decide What We Should Believe
The late Dave Hunt once said...

    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. [15]

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, many of whom tend to believe that they, or their denomination, are the sole reliable interpreters of Biblical truths, and will defend to the death their version of what the Bible says. As expressed by Melinda Penner, executive director of Stand to Reason (cited earlier. Emphasis added)

    "Doctrinal development requires rigorous intellectual skills and sound philosophic categories to accurately apply God's revelation" [16]

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. Oh and by the way, did you ever get the impression that those fishermen from the sea of Galilee had anything approaching "rigorous intellectual skills"

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.

This, I suspect, has largely been the case after the original apostles died.

For example, in refuting the belief that Emperor Constantine was somehow responsible for the doctrine of the Trinity, Mike Oppenheimer, director of Let Us Reason Ministries, mentions that "The term Trinitas was popularized by Tertullian almost 100 years before the Nicene council in his debate against Praxeas".

While this may lay waste to the claim that Constantine was responsible for the doctrine, it certainly doesn't prove that the Trinity was a Biblical concept. We cannot possibly rely on anything Tertullian said because he some of his beliefs were completely inconsistent with Scripture. For example, he believed in offerings for the dead and, although his 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, or call the Eucharist "the Lord's body".

    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 [18]

At some point in time, we really need to stop accepting theories and explanations from others and 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. I guess, how much time and effort you put into it all depends on how important Biblical truths are to you.

Remember 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.  Get the picture?

If we are smart, we had better not hang our hats on the peg labeled 'official church doctrine', on what supposedly orthodox Christians/churches think, believe, or teach, nor 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, regarding the subject at hand, how the Bible describes and defines the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and their relationship to each other. We already know Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist, so the passages that do nothing but list all three prove absolutely nothing.

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, but wanting proof. And 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 Reading ... Part IB Plurality in the Godhead, the Deity of Christ and the Deity of The Holy Spirit.

 

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

[02] Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary. Perseus Digital Library. Tufts University
http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0059%3Aentry%3D%2349128&redirect=true

[03] Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary. Perseus Digital Library. Tufts University
http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=unitas&fromdoc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0059

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

[05] 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

[06] 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

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

[08] James White. The Forgotten Trinity, 1998,  Bethany House Publishers; First Edition edition (November 1, 1998) Pgs. 14-15

[09] 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

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

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

[12] Millard Erickson, God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity, 1995, pp. 11-12

[13] 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

[14] Cardinal Donald Wuerl. Teaching of Christ, Published by "Our Sunday Visitor"; 5 edition (November 1, 2004). Ronald Lawler, Thomas Lawler and Kris Stubna, editors, 2005, Pg. 150)

[15] TBC Staff. (2008, May 1). Question: 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?. thebereancall.org. Retrieved February 4, 2014 from
http://www.thebereancall.org/content/question-how-can-you-be-sure-your-interpretation-scriptures-correct-especially-when-it-comes

[16] 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

[17] Mike Oppenheimer. Let Us Reason Ministries. The Nicene Council, what was it really about? http://www.letusreason.org/Trin13.htm

[18] 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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