Did the Early Church Teach That God Is a Trinity?
Part 1—Did Jesus and His Disciples Teach the Trinity Doctrine?
Did Jesus and his disciples teach the doctrine of the Trinity? Did church leaders of the next several centuries teach it? How did it originate? And why is it important to know the truth about this belief? Beginning with Part 1 in this issue, The Watchtower will discuss these questions in a series of articles. Other articles in the series will appear periodically in later issues.
THOSE who accept the Bible as God’s Word recognize that they have a responsibility to teach others about the Creator. They also realize that the substance of what they teach about God must be true.
God rebuked Job’s “comforters” for not doing that. “Jehovah proceeded to say to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘My anger has grown hot against you and your two companions, for you men have not spoken concerning me what is truthful as has my servant Job.’”—Job 42:7.
The apostle Paul, when discussing the resurrection, said that we would be “found false witnesses of God” if we were to teach something about God’s activities that was not true. (1 Corinthians 15:15) This being so with the resurrection teaching, how careful we ought to be when we approach our teaching about who God is!
The Trinity Doctrine
Nearly all churches of Christendom teach that God is a Trinity. The Catholic Encyclopedia calls the Trinity teaching “the central doctrine of the Christian religion,” defining it this way:
“In the unity of the Godhead there are Three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, these Three Persons being truly distinct one from another. Thus, in the words of the Athanasian Creed: ‘the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God.’ . . . The Persons are co-eternal and co-equal: all alike are uncreated and omnipotent.”1
The Baptist Encyclopædia gives a similar definition. It says:
“[Jesus] is . . . the eternal Jehovah . . . The Holy Spirit is Jehovah . . . The Son and Spirit are placed on an exact equality with the Father. If he is Jehovah so are they.”2
Anathemas Pronounced on Opposers
In 325 C.E., a council of bishops in Nicea in Asia Minor formulated a creed that declared the Son of God to be “true God” just as the Father was “true God.” Part of that creed stated:
“But as for those who say, There was [a time] when [the Son] was not, and, Before being born He was not, and that He came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance, or is created, or is subject to alteration or change—these the Catholic Church anathematizes.”3
Thus, anyone who believed that the Son of God was not coeternal with the Father or that the Son was created was consigned to everlasting damnation. One can imagine the pressure to conform that this put on the mass of ordinary believers.
In the year 381 C.E., another council met in Constantinople and declared that the holy spirit should be worshiped and glorified just as the Father and Son were. One year later, in 382 C.E., another synod met in Constantinople and affirmed the full divinity of the holy spirit.4 That same year, before a council in Rome, Pope Damasus presented a collection of teachings to be condemned by the church. The document, called the Tome of Damasus, included the following statements:
“If anyone denies that the Father is eternal, that the Son is eternal, and that the Holy Spirit is eternal: he is a heretic.”
“If anyone denies that the Son of God is true God, just as the Father is true God, having all power, knowing all things, and equal to the Father: he is a heretic.”
“If anyone denies that the Holy Spirit . . . is true God . . . has all power and knows all things, . . . he is a heretic.”
“If anyone denies that the three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, are true persons, equal, eternal, containing all things visible and invisible, that they are omnipotent, . . . he is a heretic.”
“If anyone says that [the Son who was] made flesh was not in heaven with the Father while he was on earth: he is a heretic.”
“If anyone, while saying that the Father is God and the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God, . . . does not say that they are one God, . . . he is a heretic.”5
The Jesuit scholars who translated the foregoing from Latin added the comment: “Pope St. Celestine I (422-32) apparently considered these canons law; they may be considered definitions of faith.”6 And scholar Edmund J. Fortman asserts that the tome represents “sound and solid trinitarian doctrine.”7
If you are a member of a church that accepts the Trinity teaching, do these statements define your faith? And did you realize that to believe in the Trinity doctrine as taught by the churches requires you to believe that Jesus was in heaven while he was on earth? This teaching is similar to what fourth-century churchman Athanasius stated in his book On the Incarnation:
“The Word [Jesus] was not hedged in by His body, nor did His presence in the body prevent His being present elsewhere as well. When He moved His body He did not cease also to direct the universe by His Mind and might. . . . He is still Source of life to all the universe, present in every part of it, yet outside the whole.”8
What the Trinity Doctrine Means
Some have concluded that simply ascribing deity or godship to Jesus is all that the Trinity teaching means. For others, belief in the Trinity simply means belief in Father, Son, and holy spirit.
However, a close examination of Christendom’s creeds exposes how woefully inadequate such ideas are in relation to the formal doctrine. Official definitions make it clear that the Trinity doctrine is not a simple idea. Instead, it is a complex set of separate ideas that have been brought together over a long period of time and interlocked into one another.
From the picture of the Trinity doctrine that appeared after the Council of Constantinople in 381 C.E., from the Tome of Damasus in 382 C.E., from the Athanasian Creed that came some time later, and from other documents, we can clearly determine what Christendom means by the Trinity doctrine. It includes the following definite ideas:
1. There are said to be three divine persons—the Father, the Son, and the holy spirit—in the Godhead.
2. Each of these separate persons is said to be eternal, none coming before or after the other in time.
3. Each is said to be almighty, with none greater or lesser than the other.
4. Each is said to be omniscient, knowing all things.
5. Each is said to be true God.
6. However, it is said that there are not three Gods but only one God.
Clearly the Trinity doctrine is a complex set of ideas including at least the above vital elements and involving even more, as revealed when the details are examined. But if we consider only the above basic ideas, it is apparent that if any are removed, what remains is no longer Christendom’s Trinity. To have the complete picture, all these pieces must be present.
With this better understanding of the term “Trinity,” we can now ask: Was it a teaching of Jesus and his disciples? If so, it should have appeared fully formed in the first century of our Common Era. And since what they taught is found in the Bible, then the Trinity doctrine is either a Bible teaching or it is not. If it is, it should be clearly taught in the Bible.
It is not reasonable to think that Jesus and his disciples would teach people about God and yet not tell them who God is, especially when some believers would be asked to give up even their lives for God. Hence, Jesus and his disciples should have given the highest priority to teaching others about this vital doctrine.
Examine the Scriptures
At Acts chapter 17, verse 11, people are called “noble-minded” because they were “carefully examining the Scriptures daily as to whether these things were so,” things taught by the apostle Paul. They were encouraged to use the Scriptures to confirm the teachings even of an apostle. You should do the same.
Keep in mind that the Scriptures are “inspired of God” and are to be used for “setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness, that the man of God may be fully competent, completely equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16, 17) So the Bible is complete in doctrinal matters. If the Trinity doctrine is true, it should be there.
We invite you to search the Bible, especially the 27 books of the Christian Greek Scriptures, to see for yourself if Jesus and his disciples taught a Trinity. As you search, ask yourself:
1. Can I find any scripture that mentions “Trinity”?
2. Can I find any scripture that says that God is made up of three distinct persons, Father, Son, and holy spirit, but that the three are only one God?
3. Can I find any scripture that says that the Father, Son, and holy spirit are equal in all ways, such as in eternity, power, position, and wisdom?
Search as you may, you will not find one scripture that uses the word Trinity, nor will you find any that says that Father, Son, and holy spirit are equal in all ways, such as in eternity, power, position, and wisdom. Not even a single scripture says that the Son is equal to the Father in those ways—and if there were such a scripture, it would establish not a Trinity but at most a “duality.” Nowhere does the Bible equate the holy spirit with the Father.
What Many Scholars Say
Many scholars, including Trinitarians, admit that the Bible does not contain an actual doctrine of a Trinity. For example, The Encyclopedia of Religion states:
“Exegetes and theologians today are in agreement that the Hebrew Bible does not contain a doctrine of the Trinity . . . Although the Hebrew Bible depicts God as the father of Israel and employs personifications of God such as Word (davar), Spirit (ruah), Wisdom (hokhmah), and Presence (shekhinah), it would go beyond the intention and spirit of the Old Testament to correlate these notions with later trinitarian doctrine.
“Further, exegetes and theologians agree that the New Testament also does not contain an explicit doctrine of the Trinity. God the Father is source of all that is (Pantokrator) and also the father of Jesus Christ; ‘Father’ is not a title for the first person of the Trinity but a synonym for God. . . .
“In the New Testament there is no reflective consciousness of the metaphysical nature of God (‘immanent trinity’), nor does the New Testament contain the technical language of later doctrine (hupostasis, ousia, substantia, subsistentia, prosōpon, persona). . . . It is incontestable that the doctrine cannot be established on scriptural evidence alone.”9
Regarding the historical facts on this matter, The New Encyclopædia Britannica states:
“Neither the word Trinity nor the explicit doctrine appears in the New Testament . . .
“The doctrine developed gradually over several centuries and through many controversies. . . .
“It was not until the 4th century that the distinctness of the three and their unity were brought together in a single orthodox doctrine of one essence and three persons.”10
The New Catholic Encyclopedia makes a similar statement regarding the origin of the Trinity:
“There is the recognition on the part of exegetes and Biblical theologians, including a constantly growing number of Roman Catholics, that one should not speak of Trinitarianism in the New Testament without serious qualification. There is also the closely parallel recognition on the part of historians of dogma and systematic theologians that 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. It was only then that what might be called the definitive Trinitarian dogma ‘one God in three Persons’ became thoroughly assimilated into Christian life and thought. . . .
“The formula itself does not reflect the immediate consciousness of the period of origins; it was the product of 3 centuries of doctrinal development.”11
Is It “Implied”?
Trinitarians may say that the Bible “implies” a Trinity. But this claim is made long after the Bible was written. It is an attempt to read into the Bible what clergymen of later times arbitrarily decided should be doctrine.
Ask yourself: Why would the Bible only “imply” its most important teaching—who God is? The Bible is clear on other basic teachings; why not on this, the most important one? Would not the Creator of the universe author a book that was clear on his being a Trinity if that were the case?
The reason the Bible does not clearly teach the Trinity doctrine is simple: It is not a Bible teaching. Had God been a Trinity, he would surely have made it clear so that Jesus and his disciples could have taught it to others. And that vital information would have been included in God’s inspired Word. It would not have been left to imperfect men to struggle with centuries later.
When we examine texts offered by Trinitarians as evidence that the Bible “implies” a Trinity, what do we find? An honest appraisal reveals that the scriptures offered do not speak of Christendom’s Trinity. Instead, theologians try to force into the scriptures their preconceived ideas of a Trinity. But those ideas are not in the scripture texts. In fact, those Trinitarian ideas conflict with the clear testimony of the Bible as a whole.
An example of such texts is found at Matthew 28:19, 20. There the Father, the Son, and the holy spirit are mentioned together. Some claim that this implies a Trinity. But read the verses yourself. Is there anything in those texts that says that the three are one God equal in eternity, power, position, and wisdom? No, there is not. It is the same with other texts that mention the three together.
As for those who see Trinitarian implications at Matthew 28:19, 20 in the use of “name” in the singular for the Father, Son, and holy spirit, please compare the use of “name,” singular, for Abraham and Isaac at Genesis 48:16.—King James Version; New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures.
Trinitarians also point to John 1:1 in some translations, where “the Word” is spoken of as being “with God” and as being “God.” But other Bible translations say that the Word was “a god” or was “divine,” meaning not necessarily God but a powerful one. Furthermore, that Bible verse says that “the Word” was “with” God. That would reasonably exclude him from being that same God. And no matter what is concluded about “the Word,” the fact is that only two persons are mentioned at John 1:1, not three. Over and over again, all texts used to try to support the Trinity doctrine utterly fail to do so when examined honestly.*
Another factor to consider is this: If the Trinity doctrine had been taught by Jesus and his disciples, then surely leading churchmen who came immediately after them would also have taught it. But did those men, today called the Apostolic Fathers, teach the Trinity doctrine? This question will be discussed in Part 2 of this series in a later issue of The Watchtower.
1. The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912, Volume XV, page 47.
2. The Baptist Encyclopædia, edited by William Cathcart, 1883, pages 1168-9.
3. A Short History of Christian Doctrine, by Bernhard Lohse, 1980 Edition, page 53.
4. Ibid., pages 64-5.
5. The Church Teaches, translated and edited by John F. Clarkson, S.J., John H. Edwards, S.J., William J. Kelly, S.J., and John J. Welch, S.J., 1955, pages 125-7.
6. Ibid., page 125.
7. The Triune God, by Edmund J. Fortman, 1982 Edition, page 126.
8. On the Incarnation, translated by Penelope Lawson, 1981 Edition, pages 27-8.
9. The Encyclopedia of Religion, Mircea Eliade, editor in chief, 1987, Volume 15, page 54.
10. The New Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th Edition, 1985, Volume 11, Micropædia, page 928.
11. New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967, Volume XIV, page 295.
For a more complete discussion of such scripture texts, see the brochure Should You Believe in the Trinity?, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
[Picture on page 19]
Church at Tagnon, France