The Trinity, the doctrine that many hold so dear, is never mentioned in the Bible, and was not discussed nor considered by the early church. The doctrine was crafted in a political effort to unite the church in order that it might be more easily ruled and controlled.
Adolf von Harnack (May 7, 1851–June 10, 1930), a German theologian and prominent church historian, affirms that the early church view of Jesus was as Messiah, and after his resurrection he was ‘raised to the right hand of God’ but not considered as God. (See Mark 16:19). This was the baseline view by the church in the first century. From this point of view, an evolution of infiltration began that would culminate in the doctrine of the trinity.
Bernard Lonergan, a Roman Catholic priest and Bible scholar, explains that the educated Christians of the early centuries believed in a single, supreme God. This was the same basic view as held by the Jewish believers of the time.
As for the Holy Spirit, McGiffert tells us that early Christians considered the Holy Spirit “not as a separate entity, but simply as the divine power, working in the world and particularly in the church.” It is the power or will of God working in the world.
Durant articulated the evolution of early Christianity when he said: “In Christ and Peter, Christianity was Jewish; in Paul it became half Greek; in Catholicism it became half Roman” (Caesar 579).
The Christian church has always been in turmoil. In the days of the Apostles the church was far from unified. Throughout his book “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity”, the German New Testament scholar, and early Church historian, Walter Bauer, explores the fact that Gnosticism influenced many early Christians forming heresies here and there throughout the budding Christendom.
In his work ‘The Greek Fathers”, James Marshall Campbell, a Greek professor, explains that the fear of Gnosticism was prevalent in the early church. Sects of Gnosticism varied in their Greek influence but the seeds were primarily of Greek origin and carried within it the mythos and theosophy of Plato and the Greeks that divided the universe into opposing realms of matter and spirit. In this world-view the body was a prison for the captive spirit like that of the “iron maiden” torture device of years to come.
The late Professor Arthur Cushman McGiffert interprets some of the early Christian fathers as believing Gnosticism to be “identical to” in all intents and purposes with Greek polytheism. Gnosticism had a mixed influence on the early Christian writers, sending them in various directions in their Christology. That these philosophies of the Greek, Romans, and Gnostics affected Christianity is a historical fact.
What did these philosophers teach about God? In Plato’s Timeus, ‘The Supreme Reality appears in the trinitarian form of the Good, the Intelligence, and the World-Soul’. Laing attributes elaborate trinitarian theories to the Neoplatonists, and considers Neoplatonic ideas as ‘one of the operative factors in the development of Christian theology’. One of the questions posed in the book is simply, “ What is real in Christianity.” What would Christianity be if we were to find and eliminate most outside influences?
Durant ties in philosophy with Christianity when he states that the second century Alexandrian Church, from which both Clement and Origen came, ‘wedded Christianity to Greek philosophy’; and finally, Durant writes of the famed pagan philosopher, Plotinus, that ‘Christianity accepted nearly every line of him...’
As the apostles died, various writers undertook the task of defending Christianity against the persecutions of the pagans. The problem was that they were so tainted due to education and environment that some of the defenders did more harm than good.
The most famous of these Apologists was Justin Martyr (c.107-166). He was born a pagan, became a pagan philosopher, then a Christian. He believed that Christianity and Greek philosophy were related. As for the Trinity, McGiffert asserts, “Justin insisted that Christ came from God; he did not identify him with God.” Justin’s God was “a transcendent being, who could not possibly come into contact with the world of men and things.” The Church was divided by Gnosticism, enticed by philosophy, and corrupted by paganism, but there were geographic divisions also, with East and West differing greatly.
As a reminder, sects of Gnosticism were differing combinations of Christianity and the Greek teachings, most centering around those of Plato. To the Gnostic Christians the material world and the spiritual world were very much at odds and could not coexist. Due to the increasing influence of Platoism and Gnosticism, the relationship between spirit and flesh as viewed by the church was shifting quickly. The body, once viewed as the vehicle and temple of the spirit and inseparable from it, was now viewed as a flesh prison for the spirit and opposed in nature to it. These views would turn the dancing and joyous Jewish celebration of life into repression and sorrow.
Changes would echo through time in various forms, ending in the stoicism of the sexual abstinence of priests and finally the self-flagellation of some monks. (Self-flagellation seems to have taken root in the dark ages during the plague when monks thought it would appease God if they punished themselves by beating themselves with whips.) In the early church the changes would be seen in the struggle to articulate the relationship between the various forms of the newly emerging Godhead. The Father was a spirit. The Holy Ghost was obviously a spirit, since it was the will of God who was pure spirit. It was the existence of Jesus and His position and state within the spiritual and material worlds that gives pause within the various sects of the early church.
The Eastern Church, centered in Alexandria, Egypt, and the Western Church, centered in Rome, Italy, grew in divergence. The Eastern Church was inquisitive and had an environment of free thought as a reflection of the surrounding Greek culture. The theological development of the East is best represented in Clement and Origen.
Clement of Alexandria (c.150-220) was trained in the “Catechetical School of Alexandria,” a place of training for Christian theologians and priests. Even though Clement was trained here, his views were influenced by Gnosticism. If one were to wish for a single focused statement explaining the Greek influence on the Christian Church, it would likely be the following by McGiffert; “Clement insists that philosophy came from God and was given to the Greeks as a schoolmaster to bring them to Christ as the law was a schoolmaster for the Hebrews.” McGiffert further states that Clement considered “God the Father revealed in the Old Testament” separate and distinct from the “Son of God incarnate in Christ,” with whom he identified the Logos.
Campbell continues this line of explanation when he says; “[with Clement the] philosophic spirit enters frankly into the service of Christian doctrine, and with it begins... the theological science of the future.” However, it was his student, Origen, who “achieved the union of Greek philosophy and Christianity.”
To sum up this bit of church history; Clement believed that just as the law was given to the Jews as a schoolmaster to bring them into the understanding that they needed a savior, philosophy was given to the Greeks to enable them to bring reason and a scientific approach to Christianity to establish its theology.
Campbell considered Origen (c.185-253) to be the founder of theology”, the greatest scholar of the early church and the greatest theologian of the East. Durant adds that “with [Origen] Christianity ceased to be only a comforting faith; it became a full-fledged philosophy, buttressed with scripture but proudly resting on reason.” However, the reason it rested on was directed and disciplined by the Greek style and content of thought. This is why in Origen the church experiences a changing view of God.
According to Pelikan”s Historical Theology, Origen was the “teacher of such orthodox stalwarts as the Cappadocian Father’s, (Cappadocian was an area stretching from Mount Taurus to the Black Sea), but also the “teacher of Arius’ and the “originator of many heresies.”” Centuries after his death, he was condemned by councils at least five times; however, both Athanasius and Eusebius had great respect for him.
Origen turned his attention to the trinity, beginning with what he called the “incomprehensible God.” He applied Stoic and Platonic philosophies in true Greek style. Origen believed the Father and Son were separate “in respect of hypostasis” (substance), but “one by harmony and concord and identity of will.” If we stop at this point and poll members of most major denominations we are likely to find this to be the understanding of the majority, for how can a God who is pure spirit be of the same substance as Jesus, who is flesh and blood? Origen then went on to claim the Son was the image of God, probably drawing on the scripture where Christ proclaimed, “If you have seen me you have seen the father.” In this he seems to contradict himself, anthropomorphizing to the point of endowing God with the limits of a human body made of a substance differing from that of which Jesus was made.
Keeping in mind that Gnosticism, as well as certain Greek philosophies, tend to divide the universe into realms of the spiritual and material, Origen, seeing those realms in opposition, maintained that there was a difference between “the God” and “God.” He attempted to explained that “the God” [God himself] was a unity to himself and not associated with the world but, “Whatever else, other than him who is called is also God, is deified by participation, by sharing in his divinity, and is more properly to be called not “the God” but simply “God”” (Quotes are mine for clarification.) With such theological hair-splitting we enter into confusion and error.
As Origen and others introduced more and more Greek influences into the Eastern Church, it became more mystical, philosophical, and at times obtuse. This line of thought brought us from the Jewish proclamation of, Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” and placed us into the first stage of the trinity by dividing God in twain. The simple and direct teaching of Christ to love God and treat others with dignity gave way to the complex, sophisticated, and often convoluted arguments as men found their self-importance in their ability to divide, and persuade.
It was Tertullian (c.160-230) who first coined the term trinitas from which we derive our English word “trinity.” Tertullian writes, “…the unity makes a trinity, placing the three in order not of quality but of sequence, different not in substance but in aspect, not in power but in manifestation.” Tertullian did not consider the Father and Son co-eternal. He considered God the creator of all. God must, therefore, pre-date everything that exists, even the first creative impulse, which would have created the pre-incarnate Christ. To clarify his belief Tertullian wrote, “There was a time when there was neither sin to make God a judge, nor a son to make God a Father.” Tertullian also rejected the idea of God and Christ being co-equal. He reasoned that God was and contains everything, thus the Son cannot contain everything. He explains, “For the Father is the whole substance, whereas the Son is something derived from it.” Another way to see his point is to say that all things are contained in or are part of God, thus Christ is in or part of God. The fullness of God could not be physically contained in Christ. (This statement flew in the face of Col. 2:9, which states that the fullness of the deity lives in Christ.) The idea of Trinitas is the beginning of the Trinitarian discussion in earnest, but it will take time to grow and develop into the full doctrine of the Trinity established under the political pressure of Constantine.
The world around the early Church was changing. The Roman Empire began to crumble and Constantine came to power. He wished to unify the Empire, and although he was a pagan, living in a society of polytheists, he chose Christianity, as a vehicle to work his will. What better way to unite a nation than through the growing monotheistic faith? But Christianity was far from unified; so to unify the empire the king had to unify the faith.
In 318 A.D., controversy over the matter of the Trinity had blown up again between Arius, a deacon, and Alexander, the bishop of the church in Alexandria, Egypt. Bishop Alexander of Alexandria and his deacon, Athanasius, believed there were three persons in one god.
This time Emperor Constantine involved himself. The emperor began to send letters encouraging them to put aside what the emperor called their "trivial" disputes regarding the nature of God and the "number" of God. As a polytheist, the emperor saw the argument over the semantics of whether one worshiped a single god, three gods or "three gods in one" as trivial and inconsequential. Arius, Presbyter in Alexandria, and Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia believed in only one indivisible god. According to the concept of homo-ousion, Christ the Son was consubstantial, that is to say the Son shares the same substance with the Father. Arius and Eusebius disagreed. Arius thought the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were materially separate and different. He believed that the Father created the Son. Arius and his followers, the Arians, believed if the Son were equal to the Father, there would be more than one God. If one were to sum up the heart of the matter within the debate, it would be over the status of the Son as compared to the Father.
To exemplify the points of contention, an essay by Wright regarding Arius reports; “Arius was a senior presbyter in charge of Baucalis, one of the twelve “parishes” of Alexandria. He was a persuasive preacher, with a following of clergy and ascetics, and even circulated his teaching in popular verse and songs. Around 318 A.D., he clashed with Bishop Alexander. Arius claimed that Father alone was really God; the Son was essentially different from his father. He did not possess by nature or right any of the divine qualities of immortality, sovereignty, perfect wisdom, goodness, and purity. He did not exist before he was begotten by the father. The father produced him as a creature. Yet as the creator of the rest of creation, the son existed “apart from time before all things.” Nevertheless, he did not share in the being of God the Father and did not know him perfectly. Wright concludes that before the 3rd century the "three were separate in Christian belief and each had his or it's own status.”
The dispute became louder and more strident until it spilled over once again into the Christian community, causing division and controversy within the church body. The emperor’s plan to unify the faith in order to unify the nation was being placed in jeopardy. In 325 A.D. the church faced two serious points of strife. The date of observance of the Passover on Easter Sunday had become an issue, and the concept of the Trinity was in full debate. Serious questions were being raised as to whether the church would remain intact. Letters from Constantine failed to settle the dispute, so the emperor called the "Council of Nicea.”
Constantine chose leaders, which would represent each major division within the church and invited these bishops to join him in the seaside village of Nicea. There they formed a council, which Constantine hoped could unify the church. McGiffert tells us about the council. There were three main groups represented at this council: Eusebius of Nicomedia, who represented the Arian view of the Trinity, Alexander of Alexandria presenting the Athanasian version, and a very large party led by Eusebius of Cesarea. The Cesarea contingent was made up of those who wanted unity and peace. Their theological stance was not one so immovable and intractable that it would interfere with their desire for peace. It should be noted that Alexander of Alexandria was the bishop who was involved in the “discussion” with Arius, which began the final fray. He was so self-assured that he would not move on his idea of the Trinity. It is amazing that any man could be so self-assured about his knowledge of the mind and substance of God. It is presumption.
There is a general rule of negotiations. If you are sitting at the table with your enemies, the one who moves first loses. The moment a line is drawn or a position is articulated, it sets a limit on the discussion. If the ‘negotiation is about price, the price stated would serve only as a limit from which to work. It was the mistake of Eusebius of Nicomedia to submit the Arian creed first. This served only to set a stage from which the other groups could spring. Their creed was summarily rejected. Then the more amicable of Eusebius of Cesarea submitted their creed, known as the Cesarean baptismal creed. Now the Alexandrian group knew where both parties stood. They would use this information to institute a brilliant political maneuver. Instead of submitting a creed of their own, the Alexandrian group modified the creed from Eusebius. The changes were not substantial enough to change the deeper intent of the creed. Eusebius was compelled to sign the creed. Now two of the three parties were united and the Arians were out of the negotiations. The majority of Eastern bishops sided with Arius in that they believed Christ was the Son of God ‘neither consubstantial nor co-eternal’ with his Father, but it no longer mattered.
Constantine saw well over two-thirds of the church in one accord, at least on paper. He now began to pressure all bishops to sign. Arians refusing to sign were exiled. Constantine exiled the excommunicated Arius to Illyria. Constantine's friend Eusebius, who eventually withdrew his objection, but still wouldn't sign the statement of faith, and a neighboring bishop, Theognis, were also exiled to Gaul. Constantine would reverse his opinion about the Arian heresy, and have both exiled bishops reinstated three years later, in 328 A.D. At the same time, Arius would also be recalled from exile; but for now, it was political blackmail.
The pressure from the emperor was so great and his reactions so feared that attendees justified their signatures thusly; Apuleius, wrote "I pass over in silence… those sublime and Platonic doctrines understood by very few of the pious, and absolutely unknown to every one of the profane." "the soul is nothing worse for a little ink."
Abu Al-Hassan Al-Nadwi reported that out of the 2030 attendees, only 318 readily accepted this creed ("Al-Seerah Al-Nabawiyya", p. 306). Only after returning home did other attendees such as Eusebius of Nicomedia, Maris of Chaledon and Theognis of Nicaea summon the courage to express to Constantine in writing how much they regretted having put their signatures to the Nicene formula, "We committed an impious act, O Prince," wrote Eusebius of Nicomedia, "by subscribing to a blasphemy from fear of you."
Thus Constantine had his unified Church, which was not very unified. McGiffert asserts that Eusebius of Cesarea was not altogether satisfied with the creed because it was too close to Sabellianism (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three aspects of one God). Lonergan shows just how much of the creed Eusebius took exception to as the words were explained. “Out of the Father’s substance” was now interpreted to show that the Son is “out of the Father”, but “not part of the Father’s substance.” “Born not made” because “made” refers to all other creatures “which come into being through the Son”, and “consubstantial” really means that the Son comes out of the Father and is like him.
Lonergan goes on to explain that the language of debate on the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son has made many people think that the “Church at Nicea had abandoned the genuine Christian doctrine, which was religious through and through, in order to embrace some sort of hellenistic ontology.” Nicene dogma marked the “transition from the prophetic Oracle of Yahweh... to Catholic dogma.”
The evolution of the Trinity can be seen in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. As each of the creeds became more wordy and convoluted, the simple, pure faith of the Apostolic church became lost in a haze. Even more interesting is the fact that as the creeds became more specific (and less scriptural) the adherence to them became stricter, and the penalty for disbelief harsher.
In stark contrast, is the simple oneness of the Hebrew God. After the Council of Chalcedon in 451, debate was no longer tolerated and those opposing the Trinity were considered to commit blasphemy. Sentences ranged from mutilation to death. Christians now turned on Christians, maiming and slaughtering thousands because of this difference of belief.
The reign of Constantine marks the time of the transformation of Christianity from a religion into a political system; and though, in one sense, that system was degraded, in another it had risen above the old Greek mythology. The maxim holds true in the social as well as in the mechanical world, that, when two bodies strike, the form of both is changed. Paganism was modified by Christianity; Christianity by Paganism. In the Trinitarian controversy, the chief point in discussion was to define the position of “the Son.”
After the divisions regarding the Trinity had subsided, the church continued to narrow its tolerance and tighten its grip.
Creeds and, to a degree religions, are based on exclusivity. They seek to exclude all who do not conform to a certain set of beliefs. All others are excluded and usually punished, shunned, condemned, or killed. As people in power are inclined to do, the fist of control tightens over time. In following this pattern, creeds tend to get longer, more specific, and thus more exclusive. Points of little concern in one creed become of greater importance in the next creed, as we tend to increasingly choke on gnats.
What are the points of concern? What points should we sweat? To find out what the early church fathers thought, we could examine various Christian creeds. These are lists of basic and fundamental beliefs. Each creed was made up of statements of belief. These statements were considered points on which there must be agreement before someone could be accepted into the early church as a Christian. Departure from the basic points of faith was considered a heresy. Although the word “heresy” has taken on a tone we do not like to use today in our permissive society we should consider well the lines we should draw within our own lives beyond which beliefs or actions become unacceptable, lest we also slip into heresy.