How Christendom Became Trinitarian
EVER since the Vatican II Ecumenical Council, a division is becoming more and more manifest within the Roman Catholic Church. On the one side are those who do not want any changes to be made, and on the other side are those who are impatient because more changes are not taking place. As one Jesuit publication put it: “For some Catholics, the changes are going too far and too fast, and look as if they will go farther and faster. For others, the changes are too little and too late, and there is no hope of stepping up the tempo.”
The very first Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church was held in Nicaea in 325 C.E., and it also started a great controversy within the Catholic Church. What was that controversy all about? The issue then was the Trinity doctrine.
Regarding that situation, a modern historian writes: “Two groups of theologians were of such wide influence that practically they split Christianity into two camps, which were theological and political rivals for two centuries [and more!]. These were the ‘orthodox’ group led by Athanasius, an archdeacon of the church in Alexandria, and the Arians, so called from Arius, a deacon in the same church. . . . The Athanasians were doctrinally trinitarians; the Arians, unitarians.” The Latin West, with its headquarters in Rome, was almost wholly Athanasian, whereas the Hellenized or Grecianized Eastern part of the Roman Empire was largely Arian, with its headquarters eventually at Constantinople.
What did the Arians believe? They held to “the doctrine that Christ the Son is subordinate to God the Father, and of different substance, because Christ was created by God and so came into being after God.”a
And what did the Trinitarians believe? Their doctrine is defined today as “the threefold personality of the one Divine Being,” in which ‘God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost’ are said to be of the same substance, coequal, and alike uncreated and omnipotent.
However, it is generally admitted that the Trinity teaching was a gradual development. Thus Cardinal Newman wrote that the creeds before Constantine’s time did not make any mention of it. “They make mention indeed of a Three; but that there is any mystery in the doctrine, that the Three are One, that They are coequal, coeternal, all increate, all omnipotent, all incomprehensible, is not stated, and never could be gathered from them.”—The Development of Christian Doctrine, page 15.
A modern leading Roman Catholic authority testifies in a similar vein: “It is difficult, in the second half of the 20th century, to offer a clear, objective, and straightforward account of the revelation, doctrinal evolution, and theological elaboration of the mystery of the Trinity. . . . One should not speak of Trinitarianism in the New Testament without serious qualification. . . . When one does speak of an unqualified Trinitarianism, one has moved from the period of Christian origins to, say, the last quadrant of the 4th century.”—The New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967), Vol. XIV, page 295.
Constantine and Nicaea
Constantine professed to be converted to so-called Christianity, doubtless as much due to political factors as religious ones. It therefore was very disturbing to him to see this doctrinal division, he viewing it as a threat to the unity of his empire. So as Pontifex Maximus, that is, Chief Religious Ruler, he summoned the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 C.E. Although he had not as yet been baptized as a Christian, he presided over this council to which only some 318 bishops came; with their attendants the gathering may have numbered between 1,500 and 2,000.
For about two months the Trinitarians and the Arians wrangled, the Trinitarians often resorting to extremely intolerant tactics. Constantine, noting that the Trinitarians were in the majority, decided in their favor. He “crushed the opposition among the bishops and demanded the signature of all present under the penalty of banishment. Only two bishops of Libya refused; together with Arius and the priests who remained faithful to him, they were exiled to Illyricum,” a territory corresponding to western Yugoslavia today. Arius’ writings were seized, burned, and, upon the penalty of death, all were warned against possessing any of them.
But the triumph of Athanasius and his Trinitarians was short-lived. Constantine, having decided in favor of the Trinitarians, most likely for political reasons, was just as ready to change when the political climate seemed to shift. And thus it occurred when Constantine, just a few years later, moved his capital to Byzantium and built the city bearing his name, Constantinople. Here Arianism was strong, the bishops from this area having signed the Nicene statement only because of fear.
The leading bishop in Constantinople, Eusebius of Nicomedia, was an Arian, and he succeeded in causing Constantine to change doctrinal horses, so to speak. Now it was the Trinitarians that were banned. In 335 Constantine banished Athanasius to Treves, in Gaul (France). Shortly thereafter, and just before he died, Constantine was baptized by Arian bishop Eusebius.
Constantine left the empire to his heirs, some nephews and his three sons, Constantine II, Constantius and Constans. The sons at once got rid of the other heirs and then fought it out among themselves. The one finally to win out was Constantius, a convinced Arian who gradually gained control of the entire empire, East and West, upon the death of his Trinitarian brothers. Out to advance Arianism, he ordered Trinitarian bishops to be replaced with Arian bishops, which changes caused a pagan historian of the times to mock that “the highways were covered with galloping bishops.”
The Trinitarians Finally Win
This Arian domination, however, lasted only until the death of Constantius, for the Trinitarians were still in the majority. This should not seem surprising since, with Satan as the “god of this system of things,” error is generally more popular than truth. (2 Cor. 4:4) Also accounting for the Arians losing out was the fact that they themselves were not unified. They did not endorse a common statement or creed as expressing their beliefs nor did they have a governing body to which to appeal. So they were divided, and how can ‘a house divided against itself stand’?—Matt. 12:25.
But perhaps as much as anything that caused Trinitarians to win out over Arians was that the former were ever ready to resort to violence and force to gain their ends. When Arius got up to speak at the Nicaean Council, we are told, a certain Nicholas of Myra hit him in the face, and, while Arius was speaking, many of the Trinitarian bishops stuck their fingers in their ears and ran out as if horrified at his heresies. Also typical of the intolerance of the Trinitarians was the sit-down strike that Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, maneuvered so as to prevent even one church building in his city from being turned over to the Arians, as ordered by Emperor Valentinian. Ambrose had his flock remain in the building day and night, singing songs, for two weeks, until the emperor finally yielded to his demand.
Bearing similar testimony to the violent intolerance of the Trinitarians as an effective weapon against the Arians are the contrasting statements made by two of the most noted of Germanic ‘barbarian’ rulers. Clovis, king of the Franks, who embraced Roman Catholic orthodoxy and therefore Trinitarianism, proceeded against the Arian Visigoths in Gaul, saying: “It grieves me that these Arians should hold part of Gaul. Let us march, with the help of God, and reduce them to subjection.” And reduce them to subjection he did. Concerning the harvest that followed this sowing of intolerance, we read that it “is a tale of cruelty, avarice, and treachery, of debauched kings and vindictive queens, for whom [pope] Gregory sought excuses because of their defense of Catholic orthodoxy.”
In striking contrast to the intolerance of orthodox Clovis stood Arian Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths. Zeno, the Roman emperor in the East, commissioned him to take the Italian peninsula, it being held at the time by a king who did not recognize Zeno as ruling over both the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire. Theodoric conquered Italy, but, as regards religion, his policy was: “Religion is a thing which the king cannot command, because no man can be compelled to believe against his will.”
Another factor that worked in favor of the Trinitarians was that of monasticism, that is, having men lead celibate lives in monasteries. Athanasius was the first prominent Roman Catholic theologian to promote monasticism. Monks not only were a stronghold of Trinitarianism but were ever ready to resort to violence in their zeal for their Trinitarian beliefs.
The fact that the Germanic warriors who invaded the Roman Empire, both its eastern and its western parts, were Arians also worked in favor of the Trinitarians. How did it come about that these ‘barbarians’ were Arians? Because they had been converted by an Arian bishop, Ulfilas. So to espouse Arianism was construed as sympathizing with these invaders.
Perhaps the severest blow against the Arians was delivered by Emperor Theodosius. By means of the official decrees of 391-392 C.E., he imposed Roman Catholic orthodoxy upon all “Christians” and deprived the Arians, as well as all pagans, of their houses of worship. Says a historian: “The legal triumph of the church over heresy [Arianism] and paganism and its evolution from a persecuted sect to a persecuting state church were complete.”
The Arian ‘Barbarians’
From the fifth century on, there were no longer any Arian Roman emperors. However, this did not mark the end of Arianism as a national religion. Far from it! After the death of Theodosius, Rome again became the prey of Arian German invaders who swooped down from the north. Says a Roman Catholic authority: “Despite some persecution, Christianity in this [Arian] form spread with remarkable vigor from the Goths to the neighboring tribes. . . . When they invaded the West and established the various Germanic kingdoms, most of the tribes professed [Arianism] as their national religion and in some instances persecuted those among the Roman population who professed Catholic orthodoxy. . . . But gradually the [Roman] Catholic Church succeeded in eliminating Arianism. In some instances this was achieved by military action that all but wiped out the Germanic element.” This took place during the reign of Emperor Justinian, whose ambition it was to restore the Roman Empire to its former glory and who was notorious for his persecution, not only of the Arians, but also of the Jews and the Samaritans. He even forbade the Jews to read their Scriptures in Hebrew!
But Justinian did not make an end of Arianism. Rome was to have still more to do with the Germanic barbarians, for a few years after Justinian’s death the Lombards, said to have been one of the fiercest of all the Germanic tribes, invaded Italy. Before long they had the greater part of the Italian peninsula under their control. Then in the middle of the seventh century, for one reason or another, the Lombards gradually became Trinitarian Roman Catholics, and so, while they kept on making trouble for the papacy, it was on political or territorial grounds, not religious ones.
Concerning this period we read: “In the ensuing debacle, fortunes alternated, more often as a consequence of political shifts and civil patronage than theological argument.” And as another authority puts it, Arianism “maintained itself for two centuries longer, though more as a matter of accident than choice and conviction.” Incidentally, all such political and military activity on the part of the Arians refutes the charge of some that the nonpolitical, peace-loving Christian witnesses of Jehovah are Arians.
As we note what history has to say about the political activities of the Trinitarians and of the Arians, we cannot help but be impressed with how accurately both Jesus and his apostles foretold what would happen to the Christian congregation. As Jesus put it in one of his parables: “While men were sleeping, his enemy came and oversowed weeds in among the wheat.” And so it was that the field that was originally a wheat field became a weed patch. (Matt. 13:25) And, considering what greed and violence these displayed, one appreciates how accurately the apostle Paul foretold these events: “I know that after my going away oppressive wolves will enter in among you and will not treat the flock with tenderness.” Included among those packs of wolves were both Trinitarians and Arians, the former being the fiercer of the two!—Acts 20:29.
[Picture on page 17]
Symbol of the Trinity, as it appears in the Catholic church of Tagnon, France