Christian Theology, Biblical Theology

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History of the Trinity

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.Image via Wikipedia
"The word trinity doesn't appear in the bible; therefore, it is a false teaching". This is a tenuous argument against the doctrine of the trinity used by some Unitarians. Well, to employ the same reasoning the words bible, Watchtower Society, Unitarian, and rapture don't appear in the bible either. In fact many theological terms and concepts don't explicitly appear in the bible but are none the less cogent and implicitly taught in the scriptures. The trinity was an ante-Nicene doctrine of the early church that was used to describe the essence of God which was given us through the partial revelation as revealed in the bible. The bible is not an exhaustive revelation from God concerning man, history, and God Himself; but rather a partial revelation given to man on a "need to know" basis. Clearly the bible teaches that the Father is God, Christ is God, and the Spirit is God - yet God is one. I believe the doctrine of the trinity best describes this mystery of God. The rationalist that insists that she must be able to understand everything about God is in error. The bible tells us that only the Spirit can search the mind of God, and the bible is a partial revelation of God. There are things about God that our finite minds will never be able to grasp; we can't even understand "infinity" let along a God whose knowledge is infinite and without bounds! By the way, before you write-off the concept of "mystery"; did you know that physicists can't explain how two objects (occupying two points) can collide while there are an infinite number of points between them? Scientists will agree that they will never see an atom, yet we all believe in atoms? So everyone regardless of religious beliefs or not accepts "things" on faith. Nearly every aspect of our lives requires us to accept mysteries and live by faith and there are many aspects of the universe that we will never know to be true or false we simply have to take these on faith...so we're all Believers - even the atheist!

The concept of the trinity is explicit and implicit in the bible. Here are some of the Trinitarian proof texts that show that each person of the godhead is indeed God in terms of divinity and substance. When you read the quotes from the early Church Fathers dating back to the second century; you will see that these men who were disciples of the apostles patently taught the biblical truth that the Father is God, Jesus is God, and the Spirit is God, and yet God is one. So in order to best explain this mystery of God's ontology which is beyond the domain of human understanding; they described the ontological make up of God as a triunity, trias, or trinity. Ignatius who was a disciple of Paul wrote in 107 AD "Christ is God the Son...".

Constantine's Nicene council is usually pointed to as the source for the doctrine of the trinity, yet the teaching on the trinity was en vogue long before Constantine's council. In the bible Jesus claimed to be God Almighty in Revelation 1:7-8 (compare this with Rev. 1:17, 2:8, 22:13) and in John 1:1, 1:18 (Only begotten = same substance) John 5:18, 8:58, 10:30, 10:33; Romans 1:1 & 1:9 Acts 20:28 just to mention a few of the biblical proof texts for the full deity of Christ. Read the writings of the Early Church Fathers and their beliefs on the trinity. Many of these men were disciples of the apostles and sat at the feet of the Apostles Paul and John.

Unfortunately most Unitarians and other anti-trinitarians have never had a true presentation of church history. They have been taught that the "True Church" vanished after the 12 apostles died and the "true" teachings of Christ, and correct biblical interpretation was not to be found until their leader was raised up to restore the true gospel. So, they have created this misrepresentation of history as a springboard into their false beliefs. They portray a misrepresentation of church history as proof that the doctrine of the trinity is of pagan origin from the emperor Constantine. Poor old Constantine gets blamed for "inventing" the trinity, changing the day of worship to Sunday, and a host of other customs that were practiced by the church since the times of Christ. We have thousands of writings of the disciples of the 12 apostles to substantiate these claims. Some Unitarians will claim that their writings were burned by the Catholic Church - how do you justify this argument from ignorance or lack of evidence?

This is historical error is a common mistake and springboard for those who might have trouble with some of the teachings of the Catholic Church. they will say the true church vanished the day the last apostle died and all of Protestantism and Catholicism is all a concoction of an apostate church. Most Unitarian doctrines and Christologies are the product of a Catholic Priest whose name was Arius. So their teaching are no less Catholic than the very people they call "apostates". And to the Protestants who disagree with some of the teachings of the Catholic Church. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater or you might shoot yourself in the foot.

The term trinitas was used by Tertullian almost 100 years before the Nicene council in his treatise "Against Praxeas". However, he was not the first to use the term. A man Theophilus Bishop of Antioch in 160 was the first to use it, many years before in his epistle to Autolycus The 2nd,xv..We can assume it was used prior to Theophilus and was held as a common church belief with the many quotes that are left to us in history. Athenagoras representing the whole Churches belief wrote, that, "They hold the Father to be God, and the Son God, and the Holy Spirit, and declare their union and their distinction in order."(A plea for the Christians.10.3) The term was used to simply describe the three that simultaneously exist as the one God. Praxeas promoted what is called Monarchianism, which held a strict form of monotheistic progression. That the Father became the Son, and the Son became the Spirit. This is what is called modalism in it's simplest form, What is better termed Oneness today. Despite the accusation's of the Church inventing and promoting the trinity. We find the Church in Rome and elsewhere falling prey to numerous heresies that they tried to keep out.

Quotes from The Early Church Fathers shows us the that the concept ot the trinity was well en vogue as early as the second century. As we have seen the doctrine of the trinity did not depend on any council as it was used by Tertullian and others long before a council was called on doctrinal teaching. The Catholic Church gets blamed for inventing the trinity yet when we look through its history it tells a different story. History shows that it was trinitarians that first resisted a single church government with a Pope as its head, they did not invent it. Zephyrinus (210 AD.) and Callistus (220 AD.) were the first bishops to claim Mt.16:18 to themselves, they were both modalistic in their view of God. Tertullian called him a usurper saying, "as if he was the Bishop of Bishop's." So it was Oneness believers who first wanted to be head of the whole Church, not Constantine. Adolf Harnack

The truth is that there was no Roman Catholic Church ruling Christianity before Constantine, because Christianity was an illegal religion and an underground practice. It was not until hundred's of year's later, 5th cent. to the 7th cent., that the first vestiges of this church government rose where there was a Roman bishop as the head of the Church, making it an official Roman Church functioning similar to today's.

Many claim that the trinity doctrine was invented by the Catholic Church at the council of Nicaea in Bithynia, (Turkey) in the 4th century. History has a different story! The Roman Empire had tried for years to wipe out the Christian faith and was unsuccessful. When Constantine became the Emperor, Fourteen years had had gone by since Emperor Galerius brought an end to the persecutions. Many of the men who suffered for the name of Christ survived the persecution, were now representatives at the Council of Nicaea.

It was around the year 318 that attention was focused on a man named Arius who began teaching in opposition to Bishop Alexander, both were located in Alexandria Egypt. Alexander was teaching that Jesus, the Son of God, had existed eternally, being "generated" eternally by the Father. Arius insisted that "there was a time when the Son was not." Christ must be numbered among the created beings - highly exalted, to be sure, but a creation. This controversy became very sharp that it was dividing the Church. Bishop Alexander called a synod and not long afterward Arius was pronounced teaching heresy deposed.

Arius wrote to his friend Eusebius Bishop of Nicodemia, "…how grievously the bishop attacks and persecutes us , and comes full tilt against us, so that he drives us from the city as atheists, because we do not concur with him when he publicly preaches, ’God always, the Son always; at the same time the Father, at the same time the Son; the Son co-exists with God, unbegotten; he is ever begotten, he is not born by begetting; neither by thought nor by any moment in time does God precede the Son; God always, Son Always, the Son exists from God himself’…."And before he was begotten or created or appointed or established, he did not exist; for he was not unbegotten. We are persecuted because we say the Son had a beginning, but God is without beginning." (letter to Eusibius 321 AD Theodoret. Bishop of Cyrus 423-458 H.E.I.v) Arius reasoned that since Jesus was begotten, he must have had a beginning, associating the word (begotten) generation, to be equal with creation. So it’s clear that Arius called Christ a created being not the eternal God. This went against two groups that had clashed over 50 years before that differed on how Christ was God, though both agreed his was deity.

Arius' friend Eusibius knew Constantine and his family personally, and appealed for him to help Arius. The Nicene council was convened on the request of Constantine in May and ended in late June in 325 AD. Constantine did not preside over the Council of Nicaea because of his age, (and because he had no theological knowledge), but was represented by two presbyters. Almost all the Council consisted of bishop's (estimations of 300 or more) were from the eastern churches, where this heresy was thriving. There were less than a dozen bishops representing the rest of the Empire.

What was debated was whether Christ was a created being which Arius was promoting, or that he was the same substance (Greek homoousia as God being God) as Alexander proposed. The main concern was the link of Christ’s deity to salvation. Since God is the one who condemned (in Gen.3) he could only be the one to save. This was no small matter, not only was the deity of the Son at stake but his work in salvation. This explains that those who misunderstand the deity of Christ and his relationship to the father will also misunderstand how salvation is obtained.

Philip Schaff comments on the Arian movement stating, "Arianism was a religious political war against the spirit of the Christian revelation by the spirit of the world, which, after, having persecuted the church three hundred years from without, sought under the Christian name to reduce her by degrading Christ to the category of the temporal and the created, and Christianity to the level of natural religion." (Schaff and Wace, Nicene and post Nicene fathers, vol.4 p.385, Against the Arians ii 70)

Arius’challenge was met by Bishop Alexander, and his then young deacon Athanasius. Although Athanasius was not able to cast a decision, he was active in presenting their side and rose up to be the man of the hour. Both contingents argued in the council from the Scriptures, expounding with language and logic. Athanasius’ case was made by standing on the Scriptures, and have the arguments refute itself. For the truth to be determined Athanasius tried to have all the issues discussed openly with the Arians (those who supported Arius' view). When the Arians realized they could not win the debate by an open discussion they turned their focus to politics, making it an issue of unity and harmony in the Church, instead of an issue of truth. It was Athanasius who contested this position, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the same substance or nature of God. It was Arius and his close ally Eusebius, bishop of Nicodemia, who held to Christ being literally begotten as the Son, a created being.

Constantine at first settled the issue banishing Arius, which ended up only being for a short time. Around 333 Constantine again opened contact with him. Arius revised his beliefs, and the synod of Jerusalem readmitted him recalling him from his exile, sending him back to Alexandria where this all began.

Constantine was later won to the side of Arius by Eusibius his friend and co- believer in Arius' view of Christ being a creature. Constantine then rejected the trinitarian view, and disposed of Athanasius and his followers.

Receiving Eusebius of Nicodemia, Arius friend on his death bed Constantine was baptized an Arian (337 A.D.). A year after Constantine's death Eusebius of Nicodemia became the bishop of Constantinople and the Arians quickly came into control of the most important areas of the church. So the trinity was not promoted by the Church, but was actually rejected by the very man everyone points to as the source. He was supporting Arius' view , and rejected the trinitarian view. So the Trinity as well as Christ being God, which was once a settled issue was no longer promoted by the Church. Instead it was rejected, replace by what we would call today a Unitarian doctrine.

What happened to Arius? He was on his way to visit Constantinople,(where his friend Eusibius ruled) when he suddenly died. Both sides had their opinions of what occurred. The Arians said he was poisoned, the Orthodox group considered it an act of divine judgment against his heresy. So the trinity which was once a settled issue was not promoted by the Church but was actually rejected replaced by what we call today the Unitarian doctrine. For the next 50 years Arianism became a major movement in the Church. So what the Jehovah’s Witnesses proclaim as accurate history is in fact the very opposite of what actually happened.

Constantine's Son, Constantius upheld his fathers policy of banishing Athanasius from Alexandria. Athanasius who was Arius’ chief opponent, paid dearly for his stand after the council. Five times he was driven into exile by the Arians, who solidified their teaching in the church even after the council ruled that Christ was "true God from true God, begotten not made." This belief spread, and the synods at Antioch in 341 and Aries in 353 abandoned Niacea's ruling. In 353 Constantius became the ruler over the whole empire being a pro Arian sympathizer, and in 356 Athanasius was attacked during his church service by Arians who brought with them 5,000 Roman troops. He barely escaped with his life, and spent the next 6 years in exile with monks in the surrounding area. Not only was he exiled, but also Liberius a bishop in Rome, Hosius of Cordova, and one other as well.

In 360 in Constantinople all the earlier creeds were disavowed and the term substance (ousia) was outlawed. The Son was declared to be like the Father who begot, not as the same substance. The tide would soon to turn, with Constantius death in 361.

Soon afterwards the Arian group began to splinter into smaller factions, and was losing influence. Since their main religious influence came from Constantius, who had died. Athanasius was then finally able to return, but after a few months he was again banished by Arians. The Arian force this time was assisted by the state. This continued on and off until 366, when the Arian Emperor Valens, who banished him two years earlier, felt it expedient to bring him back. This time Athanasius remained there until his death in 373 A.D. Throughout these years he wrote numerous books countering the Arian heresy and the "Pneumatomachians". Athanasius spent the rest of his life devoted to defending the decision of the council. It was during his trial years that a cliche was born "Athanasius against the world." And so it was, and we are indebted today to a 4th century Luther that stood up to define the nature of Christ and God against a flood of falsehood.

Most importantly Jesus said in the gospel of John "Unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sin" The I AM he is referring to is Jehovah.
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