1.4 Why The Trinity Was Accepted In Europe
In my opinion, the Biblical evidence against the trinity is compelling. And yet the majority of professing Christians are trinitarian; and moreover, they stigmatize non-trinitarians as non-Christian, many claiming that non-trinitarians are automatically a ‘sect’. Clearly enough, neither the word ‘trinity’ nor the wording of the trinitarian formula were known to New Testament Christianity. In a sense, Jesus ‘became’ God to many Christians all because a group of bishops decided it was so. But why did this happen? And why was there so much angst to label those who didn’t accept the trinity as heretics? Having read around the history of the early centuries of Christianity, the following are some suggested reasons:
1. There was a mixture of paganism and Christianity, to make the changeover from paganism to nominal Christianity less controversial and more painless. I’ve given some specific examples of this in a European context below.
2. There was an element of genuine misinterpretation. As you read through the New Testament chronologically, it becomes apparent that the Lord Jesus is spoken of in ever more exalted language. For example, the term “son of man” is a favourite of the Gospel writers to describe the Lord Jesus. But it occurs only once in the later New Testament. Mark, the first Gospel, never calls Jesus “Lord”- but “Lord” is Paul’s most common title of Jesus some years later. John’s Gospel, clearly written after the other three, uses much more exalted language about the Lord Jesus than the earlier Gospels. The growth in perception of the greatness of Jesus is also perhaps reflected in the way that Revelation, the last inspired book of the New Testament, employs the most exalted language about Jesus. Both Paul and Peter show a progressive fondness in their choice of words for terms which exalt Jesus higher and higher. And presumably this trend continued after their death, as believers realized more and more that the carpenter from Nazareth had in fact been God’s Son, and is now the exalted King of Heaven and earth. The penny dropped that in fact “we can never exalt Christ too highly”, as Robert Roberts put it in the 19th century. But… and it’s a big but. The language of exaltation can reach a point where Jesus is no longer Jesus, but somehow God Himself. Further, it’s my observation that intellectual failure very often has an underlying psychological basis. To make Jesus God was one thing, but to accept the doctrine of three Gods in one, the trinity, was another. And I submit that this intellectual failure was rooted, even unconsciously, in a desire for an easier ride. It is after all extremely demanding to accept that a man, born into all our dysfunction, could be perfect; that from the larynx of a Palestinian Jew there could come forth the words of God Almighty. It’s a challenge, because we too are human; and if this was how far one of us could rise, above all the things that hold us down, that retard our growth towards the image of God Himself… then He is setting us an example so challenging that it reaches into the very core of our being, uncomfortably, inconveniently and even worryingly. To have a Jesus who was in fact not truly human, but just acting out, a Jesus who was really God and not man… this removes so much of the challenge of the real, human Christ.
The human desire to believe in a god rather than a man is demonstrated in Israel’s attitude to Moses. They complained about “this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt”; and therefore made the golden calf, proclaiming: “These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 32:1,4). Note in passing how they created one calf, but worshipped it as gods plural. They committed the trinity fallacy of many centuries later. They couldn’t handle a saviour who was human, like them, and so they decided that a god had been their saviour, who existed as a plurality, gods, within a unity, i.e. the golden calf.
3. Remember that the trinity was adopted at the Council of Nicea in AD325. This Council was called by Constantine after he decided he wished to turn the official religion of the Roman empire from paganism to Christianity. Not long before that Council, Christians had been cruelly persecuted. Some of the delegates at that Council even bore on their faces and in their bodies the marks of that persecution. The pagans had [falsely] accused the Christians of making Jesus into a God whom they worshipped. Pliny had reported how they “chant antiphonally a hymn to Christ as to a god” (1). In the pagan Roman world, only the Jews refused to worship other gods on the basis that there was only one true God. The fact the Christians did the same led to the perception that they too thought that there was only one God, just that they called Him ‘Christ’. The Jews likewise wrongly assumed that anyone claiming to be the Son of God was claiming to be God (Jn. 10:33-36; 19:7)- even though Jesus specifically corrected them over this! As often happens, the perceptions of a group by their enemies often come to define how the group perceive themselves. Constantine was a politician and a warrior. He wasn’t a Bible student, nor a theologian, in fact he wasn’t even a very serious Christian (1a). Although he accepted Christianity, he said he didn’t want to be baptized because he wanted to continue in sin. He seems to have figured that Christianity was the right thing for the empire. So, Christianity, here we come. Constantine, and many others who jumped on the ‘Christian’ bandwagon, shared the perception of Christ which had existed in the pagan world which they had grown up in. And the pagan perception, as Pliny and many others make clear, was that Jesus was a kind of God. And so when Constantine presided over the dispute amongst the bishops at Nicea about who Jesus was, he naturally assumed that the ‘Jesus is God Himself’ party were in fact traditional Christians.
4. The true Christian believer has ever been under pressure from the world. Paul wrote words of eternal relevance when he asked that we not allow the world to press us into its’ mould, but rather allow Christ to transform us. The acceptance of the trinity was a result of the world pressurizing the church. The Roman and Jewish worlds which surrounded the Christians had a way of divinizing human figures. If you concluded a man had been a hero, then you applied Divine language to him- a form of what the Greeks had called apotheosis. This is why some of the Rabbinic commentary on men like Moses and Elijah use God-like language about them, although clearly the intention was not to make them equal to the one and only God of Israel whom they believed in. There’s no lack of evidence that Christians did this with regards to Jesus, indeed there are examples of it in the New Testament. And it has also been observed that some of the exalted Jewish language used about Moses- e.g. “the one for and on account of whom the world was created”- was purposefully appropriated by Paul and applied to Jesus(2). Such glorified figures were also spoken of with the language of pre-existence, as if they had existed from the beginning of creation, even though that wasn’t literally the case. They were “ascribed a prior, heavenly status or existence, however that was understood” (3). But as Christianity generally turned against the Jews, as Jewish Christians were thrown out of the church or returned to the synagogues, the actual human roots of Jesus were overlooked. The Jewish background to the language of exaltation used about Him was no longer appreciated. Instead, Christ remained in the minds of many Christians just with the Divine titles attached to Him; and so they ended up concluding that He was God Himself. Why? Because they overlooked the Jewish origins of Jesus, and the Old Testament background to Him; and because they preferred to stick with forms of wording which were comfortable and familiar to them, rather that searching out the meaning behind those words. And today, nothing much has changed. Still Christians remain almost wilfully ignorant of the basic principle of ‘God manifestation’ which is found throughout Scripture, whereby Divine language can be used of a person without making them God Himself.
Vincent Taylor analyzes Paul’s hymn of praise to the Lord Jesus in Phil. 2:6-11 and concludes that it is an adaptation of a Jewish hymn which spoke of “the appearance of the Heavenly Man on earth” (4). Paul was writing under inspiration, but it seems he purposefully adapted a Jewish hymn and applied it to Jesus- to indicate the status which the Lord Jesus should truly be ascribed. Col. 1:15-20, another poetic fragment which is likewise misunderstood by those seeking to justify the false idea of a personal pre-existence of the Lord, has also been identified as a Jewish hymn which Paul modified (5). We must remember that Paul was inspired by God to answer the claims of false teachers; and he was doing so by using and re-interpreting the terms which they used. Nearly all the titles of Christ used in the letter to the Hebrews are taken from Philo or the Jewish book of Wisdom (6). The writer to the Hebrews is seeking to apply them in their correct and true sense to the Lord Jesus. This explains why some titles are used which can easily be misunderstood by those not appreciating this background. For example, Philo speaks of “the impress of God’s seal”, and Hebrews applies this to the Lord Jesus. The phrase has been misinterpreted by trinitarians as meaning that Jesus is therefore God; but this wasn’t at all the idea behind the title in Philo’s writings, and neither was it when the letter to the Hebrews took up the phrase and applied it to Jesus. This sort of thing goes on far more often than we might think in the Bible- existing theological ideas are re-cast and re-presented in their correct light, especially with reference to the Lord Jesus. Arthur Gibson notes that “there is an important second level within religious language: it is a reflection upon, a criticism of, a correction of, or a more general formulation of, expressions which previously occur” (7). He even shows that the very Names ‘Yahweh’ and ‘El’ were an allusion to earlier contemporary gods of a similar name and meaning- but the only true God, Yahweh, the El of Israel, alludes to these false notions and presents them as applying solely to Himself.
5. The argument between Arius (non-trinitarian) and Athanasius (trinitarian) was more political than it was theological or Biblical. There was a power struggle between the two men. Once Christianity became the state religion of the Roman empire, power within the church became political power. These two Christian leaders both had significant followings; and they both wanted power. The followers of the two groups fought pitched battles with each other in the urban centres of the empire. There are numerous accounts of Athanasius’ followers beating and murdering non-trinitarian Christians in the lead up to the Council of Nicea, torturing their victims and parading their dead bodies around (8). The trinitarian Athanasius was by far the more brutal. “Bishop Athanasius, a future saint… had his opponents excommunicated and anathematized, beaten and intimidated, kidnapped, imprisoned, and exiled to distant provinces” (9). As in any power struggle, the opponents of both sides became vilified and demonized; the issue of how to formulate a creed about the nature of Jesus became a matter of polemics and politics, with the non-trinitarians being described in the most vitriolic of language. Non-trinitarians were accused of “rending the robe of Christ”, crucifying Him afresh, and far worse. Sadly this spirit of vilification of those who hold another view has continued to this day, with many trinitarians refusing to accept any non-trinitarian as a Christian. Arius complained in a letter that “We are persecuted because we say that Son had a beginning, but that God was without beginning” (10). At the Council of Nicea, Bishop Nicholas- who later became the legendary saint of Christmas in much of Europe- slapped Arius around the face (11). It would be wrong to think of the dispute as a matter of learned men of God disagreeing with each other over a matter of Biblical interpretation. Athanasius, who had the ear of Constantine more than Arius, was out for victory. He therefore emotionalized the issue and used every manner of politics and destruction of his opponents in order to get Constantine to come down on his side, exile Arius for heresy, and therefore leave him as the senior churchman of the Roman empire- which meant major political power, in an empire which had newly adopted Christianity and sought to enforce it as the empire’s religion. Often I hear the comment ‘Well this matter was all looked into long ago, and wise Christians weighed it up and came to a prayerful conclusion, which tradition Christians rightly follow and uphold’. The history of the matter is quite different. Athanasius compounded his physical attacks on Arius’ supporters, his burning of their churches etc, with a series of personal slanders against the leading non-trinitarians, calling them seducers, rapists, frequenters of prostitutes, etc (12). If the argument was really just about the interpretation of Scripture, there needn’t have been all this personal attacking and politicking and rioting. Clearly, the issue of accepting the trinity was all about power politics.
6. Constantine was a politician, not a Bible student. "Constantine's goal was to create a neutral public space in which Christians and pagans could both function... creating a stable coalition of both Christians and non-Christians" in the Roman empire (13). He also realized that Christianity itself had to be united if it were to be the state religion, and so he wanted there to be only one view on this contentious issue of who Jesus was. It was intolerable for him that Christians were rioting against each other over it. The matter had to be resolved. One side had to be chosen as right, and the other side must be silenced. He came down on the side of Athanasius for political reasons- adopted the trinitarian creed for the church, and exiled Arius. And so, Jesus ‘became’ God because of that. In the same spirit of wanting a united church at all costs, Constantine agreed at Nicea a whole range of other measures which were likewise not Biblical- e.g. that anyone excommunicated by a Bishop in one province could never be accepted in another province, and the appointment of “superbishops” in Alexandria, Rome and Antioch who would decide all contentious issues in future. Personal conscience and understanding didn’t matter; all Constantine wanted was a united church, as he believed it would result in a united empire. One empire, one religion- and therefore, that religion had to be united, and dissent had to quashed. Someone had to be made out as totally right, and someone as totally wrong. Sadly one sees today the very same mentality in so many churches and local congregations. It’s all about power. The mess made in early Christianity remains our sober warning in these last days.
(1) Pliny (the Younger), Epistles 10.96. English translation in A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrative Of The History of The Church To AD 337 , ed. J. Stevenson (London: SPCK, 1974) pp. 13-15.
(1a) There's strong historical evidence that Constantine was scarcely a Christian himself by the time of the Council of Nicea. The idea is commonly held that he saw a vision of Christ at the battle of Milvan Bridge in AD312 and then converted to Christianity in gratitude, especially as Christ supposedly told him to lead his soldiers with the sign of the cross. However, there is serious evidence against this. After the battle, he claimed that "The supreme deity" had helped him, and he placed "the heavenly sign of God" on his soldier's shields. But histyorical sources dating from soon after the battle state that this sign was not the cross, but the chi-ro sign, or labarum- the emblem of the sun god. It was only many years later that Eusebius wrote a biography of Constantine, in which he claimed that this hd actually been the sign of the cross. After the battle in AD312, Constantine erected a triumphal arch opposite the Colosseum in Rome to celebrate the victory- and covered it with reliefs of Mars, Jupiter, Hercules [the gods of war], and ascribed victory to the power of the Sun god. Depictions of the battle show no soldier with any cross on his shield! As late as AD320, Constantine's coins represented him with the crown of the 'Sol Invictus', the Sun god cult. And was it co-incidence that he declared December 25th, the main festival of the 'Sol Invictus', as the birthday of Jesus? Further, his new capital, Constantinople, was committed to the care of the local protecting deities, Rhea and Tyche- Constantine built temples for them all over his new capital.
(2) See Larry Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion And Ancient Jewish Monotheism (London: T&T Clark, 2003) pp. 71-92.
(3) N.A. Dahl, "Christ, Creation And The Church" in The Background Of The New Testament , ed. W.D. Davies and D. Daube (Cambridge: CUP, 1964) pp. 422-443.
(4) Vincent Taylor, The Person Of Christ In New Testament Teaching (London: Macmillan, 1959) p. 62.
(5) Evidence provided in Rudolf Bultmann, Theology Of The New Testament Vol. 1 pp. 132, 176, 178.
(6) See J. Moffatt, The Epistle To The Hebrews (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1924) pp. 11,38; C.K. Barrett, The New Testament Background (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989 ed.) pp. 174-184.
(7) Arthur Gibson, Biblical Semantic Logic (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981) p. 26. The same point is often exemplified in J. Barr, The Semantics Of Biblical Language (Oxford: OUP, 1961).
(8) See R.P.C. Hanson, The Search For The Christian Doctrine Of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988) p. 386.
(9) Richard Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God (London: Harcourt, 2000) p. 6.
(10) Quoted in Rubenstein, ibid p. 58.
(11) Mentioned in Rubenstein, ibid p. 77.
(12) These things are chronicled extensively in T.D. Barnes, Constantine And Eusebius (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981) pp. 18-27 and throughout T.D. Barnes, Athanasius And Constantius: Theology And Politics In The Constantinian Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).
(13) H.A. Drake, Constantine And Consensus (Oxford: OUP, 1995). The same author concludes that Constantine realized that Christianity was unstoppable, and therefore it was better to merge with it than seek to destroy it. See his Constantine And The Bishops: The Politics Of Intolerance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2000).
1-4-1 Why The Trinity Was Accepted In Europe: Pagan Influence
Barry Cunliffe(1) notes “the prevalence of tripilism in Celtic religion… The ‘power of three’ was frequently expressed in iconography, as, for example, in the three-faced stone head from Corleck, Cavan, in Ireland or the tricephalic deity depicted on the pot from Bavay in northern France, but it is also found as a recurring motif- the triskele- in Celtic art. The concept is made even more specific in the Romano-British and Gallo-Roman religion in the form of the Deae Matres or the Matronae- the three mother goddesses- who together form a unity representing strength, power and fertility. Another but less widespread female trinity are the Saluviae, who preside over springs… inscriptions to the Lugoves in Switzerland and Spain may well refer to a triple form of Lugh. In the Insular literature of Ireland, tripilism is a recurring theme. The great goddess, the Morrigan in her plural form, the Morrigna, resolves into three: Morrigan, Badb, and Nemain. Brigit and Macha also occur as triads. It is tempting to wonder if the threefold division proposed by Lucan, of Esus, Teutates, and Taranis, is a further expression of Celtic tripilism”.
So it’s not surprising that the idea of God as a trinity was easily accepted in Europe- the one true God had been adapted to the pagan background culture, rather than Bible truth being allowed to define our beliefs. The more one searches, the more one finds evidence of what Cunliffe calls “tripilisms”, pagan godheads that occurred in three forms or persons. The “three legs of Mann” on the Isle of Mann, which symbol is also found on coins found in Italy and Asia Minor from before the time of Christ; the triple knot inscriptions [called the Triquetra] and the “Triskel” symbol, again a reference to some primitive form of ‘trinity’, found in inscriptions and art forms throughout Brittany, Ireland and Western Britain.
Photo: A small plaque of schist from Bath, England with three female figures representing the ‘three mothers’, a triad of deities. These triads of mother goddesses were common in the West of Britain in the early Roman period, probably reflecting an earlier Iron Age tradition. Original in the Roman Baths Museum, Bath UK.
(1) Barry Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts (London: Penguin, 1999) p. 17