3-1 Why The Trinity Was Accepted
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. Accommodation To Paganism
was a mixture of paganism and Christianity which made 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. Many scholars have pointed out that the idea of a Divine
figure coming to earth to redeem the faithful was a very common pagan
myth in the Middle East of the first century (1). It's easy to see how
early Christians would've been tempted to claim that Christ was some
form of pre-existent God in order to make their beliefs accommodate the
surrounding paganism- and it's understandable that some would've been
eager to misinterpret Bible passages to this end.
idea of a 'trinity' of gods was widespread in paganism. The Egyptians
had three main gods, Osiris, Isis and Horus. Horus was in turn divided
into 3 parts or persons:
Horus - the King
Horus - Ra
Horus - the Scarabaeus.
Likewise the Hindu Vedas of around 1000 BC claimed that one God existed in three forms:
Agni - Fire, presiding over the earth
Indra - the Firmament, presiding over the mid-air
Surya - The Sun. presiding over the Heavens.
In later Hinduism, the 'trimurti' or trinity of gods became:
Brahma - the creative power
Vishnu - the preserving power
Siva - the transforming power.
when Theophilus, bishop of Antioch introdcued the word 'trias' to
Christian literature for the first time in AD170, and the word
'trinitas' was first used by Tertullian in AD200, they were importing
pagan concepts which were familiar and had been for millenia.
Barry Cunliffe (2) 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
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. Examples include: 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. There's 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. The original is in the Roman Baths Museum in Bath UK.
mythology was well known, and formed the background for the early
Christian converts. It was full of legends relating how young men
sacrificed themselves in the prime of life, winning victories against
superhuman odds, and then resurrected, ascended to 'heaven' and turned
into gods who were to be worshipped on earth. Heracles is the classic
example, but Martin Hengel lists many others (3). It's easy to see how
people who had heard something of the Christian Gospel, but were not
aware or didn't pay attention to the content of the word itself, came
to confuse the story of Jesus with these kinds of myths and legends.
And so they ended up seeing Jesus as a God, one of many... and the
fatal step towards Trinitarian doctrine was thus natural and easy for
them. Again, if they had paid attention to the actual words of the
Christian message, they'd have seen the crucial difference between
those myths, and the startling reality of the real Christ. But because
they paid insufficient attention to God's word in the Gospel, they
ended up understanding the Christian story in terms of the surrounding
mythology, rather than giving God's word its' full weight and seeing
Christ freestanding, as the unique Son of God whom He was.
Around AD8, Ovid published his collection of poems called Metamorphoses.
They are full of tales of how gods descended to earth, incarnated as
men, and then went back to Heaven. Jupiter and Mercury were supposed to
have come to earth, unrecognized as men, and were supposedly
entertained by Baucis and Philemon. These ideas were common in the
first century- hence when Paul and Barnabas did miracles (Acts 14:11),
the people assumed they were Hermes and Zeus (the Greek equivalent of
Mercury and Jupiter). Note, of course, how fervently Paul denied this!
Cicero wrote to the governor of Asia and encouraged him to act as if he
were one of the Divine men who supposedly came to earth from Heaven (Ad Quintem Fratrem
I.i.7). Horace in B.C.30 addressed Caesar Augustus as Mercury
incarnate, and wrote that the son of Mercury was to come down from
Heaven and 'expiate human guilt' (Odes I.2). Vergil in 40 B.C.
made a similar prophecy that "was later interpreted as a Messianic
prophecy by Christians" (4). I find all this highly significant. The
ideas of a pre-existent God coming to earth as man, as a saviour,
expiating human guilt etc., were all pagan ideas. And it is these very
ideas which were seized upon by Christians and later made respectable
[in orthodox Christian terms] as the doctrine of the trinity. A hard
question to trinitarians would be: 'How do you explain the huge
similarities between your beliefs and those of pagan Greece and Rome at
the time of Jesus?'. This question hits the harder when the admission
is finally forced that the New Testament itself is silent about the
trinity, incarnation, God becoming man, personal pre-existence of Jesus
etc. And the question acquires fatal force when it is demonstrated that
the few New Testament passages used to shore up trinitarianism are in
fact examples of the apostles quoting or alluding to the pagan myths in order to debunk them.
I have exemplified that point frequently in these studies- see, e.g.,
my comments on Philippians 2.
The Roman policy was not
to deride the gods of the peoples they conquered but rather to
introduce them into their religious systems. "Local gods would be
merged into the Roman pantheon- a provincial god of thunder could
simply be seen as Zeus or Jupiter in a different guise- with the result
that a complex of interlocking rituals and scared sites could sustain
local cultures without undermining Roman supremacy" (5). When Rome
adopted Christianity, this mindset continued- hence the willingness to
import 'tripilisms' of local pagan cultures into Constantine's version
of Christianity. In order to enforce unity of belief in the Roman
empire, there began a program of church building after the time of
Constantine. "In this way a pagan custom, the worship of gods through
impressive buildings, was transferred successfully into Christianity.
Such display was completely alien to the Christian tradition..." (6).
Theodosius followed Constantine in trying to ensure that Trinitarian
Christianity was the one and only state religion. This meant campaigns
against paganism as well as Trinitarian Christians. But these campaigns
inevitably met resistance; and the Roman empire sought compromise to
their advantage wherever possible. Thus a law was passed forbidding the
lighting of lamps in front of pagan sacred places; but instead it was
permitted to light lamps in front of Christian altars and tombs. Jerome
justified this by teaching that pagan practices were acceptable when
done in a Christian context.
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” (7). 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 (8).
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.
(1) Barry Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts (London: Penguin, 1999) p. 17
(2) Rudolph Bultmann, Theology Of The New Testament (New York: Scribner's, 1965) Vol. 1 p. 166; F.B.Craddock, The Pre-Existence Of Christ In The New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 1968); M. Wiles, The Remaking Of Christian Doctrine (London: S.C.M., 1974) Chapter 3.
(3) Martin Hengel, The Cross Of The Son Of God (London: S.C.M., 1986) pp. 192-194.
(4) Frances Young, in John Hick, ed., The Myth Of God Incarnate (London: S.C.M., 1977) p. 97.
(5) Charles Freeman, AD381: Heretics, Pagans And The Christian State (London: Pimlico, 2008) p.18.
(6) Freeman, ibid p. 48.
(7) 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: S.P.C.K., 1974) pp. 13-15.
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
historical 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 had 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.