Did the Early Church Teach That God Is a Trinity?
Part 4—When and How Did the Trinity Doctrine Develop?
The first three articles of this series showed that the Trinity doctrine was not taught by Jesus and his disciples nor by the early Church Fathers. (The Watchtower of November 1, 1991; February 1, 1992; and April 1, 1992) This final article will discuss how the Trinity dogma developed and what part was played by the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E.
IN THE year 325 C.E., Roman emperor Constantine convened a council of bishops in the city of Nicaea in Asia Minor. His purpose was to resolve the continuing religious disputes over the relationship of the Son of God to Almighty God. Regarding the results of that council, the Encyclopædia Britannica says:
“Constantine himself presided, actively guiding the discussions, and personally proposed . . . the crucial formula expressing the relation of Christ to God in the creed issued by the council, ‘of one substance [ho·mo·ouʹsi·os] with the Father.’ . . . Overawed by the emperor, the bishops, with two exceptions only, signed the creed, many of them much against their inclination.”1
Did this pagan ruler intervene because of his Biblical convictions? No. A Short History of Christian Doctrine states: “Constantine had basically no understanding whatsoever of the questions that were being asked in Greek theology.”2 What he did understand was that religious disputes threatened the unity of his empire, and he wanted them resolved.
Did It Establish the Trinity Doctrine?
Did the Council of Nicaea establish, or affirm, the Trinity as a doctrine of Christendom? Many assume that this was the case. But the facts show otherwise.
The creed promulgated by that council did assert things about the Son of God that would allow various clergymen to view him as equal to God the Father in a certain way. Yet, it is enlightening to see what the Nicene Creed did not say. As originally published, the entire creed stated:
“We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible;
“And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through Whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming man, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead;
“And in the Holy Spirit.”3
Does this creed say that Father, Son, and holy spirit are three persons in one God? Does it say that the three are equal in eternity, power, position, and wisdom? No, it does not. There is no three-in-one formula here whatsoever. The original Nicene Creed did not establish or affirm the Trinity.
That creed, at most, equates the Son with the Father in being “of one substance.” But it does not say anything like that about the holy spirit. All it says is that “we believe . . . in the Holy Spirit.” That is not Christendom’s Trinity doctrine.
Even the key phrase “of one substance” (ho·mo·ouʹsi·os) did not necessarily mean that the council believed in a numerical equality of Father and Son. The New Catholic Encyclopedia states:
“Whether the Council intended to affirm the numerical identity of the substance of Father and Son is doubtful.”4
Had the council meant that the Son and the Father were one numerically, it would still not be a Trinity. It would only be a two-in-one God, not three-in-one as required by the Trinity doctrine.
“A Minority Viewpoint”
At Nicaea, did the bishops in general believe that the Son was equal to God? No, there were competing points of view. For example, one was represented by Arius, who taught that the Son had a finite beginning in time and was therefore not equal to God but was subordinate in all respects. Athanasius, on the other hand, believed that the Son was equal to God in a certain way. And there were other views.
Regarding the council’s decision to consider the Son of the same substance (consubstantial) as God, Martin Marty states: “Nicaea actually represented a minority viewpoint; the settlement was uneasy and was unacceptable to many who were not Arian in outlook.”5 Similarly, the book A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church notes that “a clearly formulated doctrinal position in contrast to Arianism was taken up by a minority only, although this minority carried the day.”6 And A Short History of Christian Doctrine notes:
“What seemed especially objectionable to many bishops and theologians of the East was the concept put into the creed by Constantine himself, the homoousios [“of one substance”], which in the subsequent strife between orthodoxy and heresy became the object of dissension.”7
After the council, disputing continued for decades. Those who were for the idea of equating the Son with Almighty God even fell out of favor for a time. For example, Martin Marty says of Athanasius: “His popularity rose and fell and he was exiled so often [in the years after the council] that he virtually became a commuter.”8 Athanasius spent years in exile because political and church officials opposed his views that equated the Son with God.
So to assert that the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. established or affirmed the Trinity doctrine is not true. What later became the Trinity teaching was not in existence at the time. The idea that the Father, Son, and holy spirit were each true God and equal in eternity, power, position, and wisdom, yet but one God—a three-in-one God—was not developed by that council nor by earlier Church Fathers. As The Church of the First Three Centuries states:
“The modern popular doctrine of the Trinity . . . derives no support from the language of Justin [Martyr]: and this observation may be extended to all the ante-Nicene Fathers; that is, to all Christian writers for three centuries after the birth of Christ. It is true, they speak of the Father, Son, and prophetic or holy Spirit, but not as co-equal, not as one numerical essence, not as Three in One, in any sense now admitted by Trinitarians. The very reverse is the fact. The doctrine of the Trinity, as explained by these Fathers, was essentially different from the modern doctrine. This we state as a fact as susceptible of proof as any fact in the history of human opinions.”
“We challenge any one to produce a single writer of any note, during the first three ages, who held this [Trinity] doctrine in the modern sense.”9
Nicaea, though, did represent a turning point. It opened the door to the official acceptance of the Son as equal to the Father, and that paved the way for the later Trinity idea. The book Second Century Orthodoxy, by J. A. Buckley, notes:
“Up until the end of the second century at least, the universal Church remained united in one basic sense; they all accepted the supremacy of the Father. They all regarded God the Father Almighty as alone supreme, immutable, ineffable and without beginning. . . .
“With the passing of those second century writers and leaders, the Church found itself . . . slipping slowly but inexorably toward that point . . . where at the Council of Nicaea the culmination of all this piece-meal eroding of the original faith was reached. There, a small volatile minority, foisted its heresy upon an acquiescent majority, and with the political authorities behind it, coerced, cajoled and intimidated those who strove to maintain the pristine purity of their faith untarnished.”10
The Council of Constantinople
In 381 C.E., the Council of Constantinople affirmed the Nicene Creed. And it added something else. It called the holy spirit “Lord” and “life-giver.” The expanded creed of 381 C.E. (which is substantially what is used in the churches today and which is called “the Nicene Creed”) shows that Christendom was on the brink of formulating a full-blown Trinitarian dogma. Yet, not even this council completed that doctrine. The New Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges:
“It is interesting that 60 years after Nicaea I the Council of Constantinople I [381 C.E.] avoided homoousios in its definition of the divinity of the Holy Spirit.”11
“Scholars have been puzzled by the apparent mildness of expression on the part of this creed; its failure, for example, to use the word homoousios of the Holy Spirit as consubstantial with the Father and Son.”12
That same encyclopedia admits: “Homoousios does not appear in Scripture.”13 No, the Bible does not use that word either for the holy spirit or for the Son as being consubstantial with God. It was an unbiblical expression that helped lead to the unbiblical, indeed, antibiblical, doctrine of the Trinity.
Even after Constantinople, it was centuries before the Trinity teaching was accepted throughout Christendom. The New Catholic Encyclopedia says: “In the West . . . a general silence seems to have prevailed with regard to Constantinople I and its creed.”14 This source shows that the council’s creed was not widely recognized in the West until the seventh or eighth century.
Scholars also acknowledge that the Athanasian Creed, often quoted as a standard definition and support of the Trinity, was not written by Athanasius but by an unknown author much later. The New Encyclopædia Britannica comments:
“The creed was unknown to the Eastern Church until the 12th century. Since the 17th century, scholars have generally agreed that the Athanasian Creed was not written by Athanasius (died 373) but was probably composed in southern France during the 5th century. . . . The creed’s influence seems to have been primarily in southern France and Spain in the 6th and 7th centuries. It was used in the liturgy of the church in Germany in the 9th century and somewhat later in Rome.”15
How It Developed
The Trinity doctrine began its slow development over a period of centuries. The trinitarian ideas of Greek philosophers such as Plato, who lived several centuries before Christ, gradually crept into church teachings. As The Church of the First Three Centuries says:
“We maintain that the doctrine of the Trinity was of gradual and comparatively late formation; that it had its origin in a source entirely foreign from that of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures; that it grew up, and was ingrafted on Christianity, through the hands of the Platonizing Fathers; that in the time of Justin, and long after, the distinct nature and inferiority of the Son were universally taught; and that only the first shadowy outline of the Trinity had then become visible.”16
Before Plato, triads, or trinities, were common in Babylon and Egypt. And the efforts of churchmen to attract unbelievers in the Roman world led to the gradual incorporation of some of those ideas into Christianity. This eventually led to acceptance of the belief that the Son and the holy spirit were equal to the Father.*
Even the word “Trinity” was only slowly accepted. It was in the latter half of the second century that Theophilus, bishop of Antioch in Syria, wrote in Greek and introduced the word tri·asʹ, meaning “triad,” or “trinity.” Then the Latin writer Tertullian in Carthage, North Africa, introduced into his writings the word trinitas, which means “trinity.”* But the word tri·asʹ is not found in the inspired Christian Greek Scriptures, and the word trinitas is not found in the Latin translation of the Bible called the Vulgate. Neither expression was Biblical. But the word “Trinity,” based on pagan concepts, crept into the literature of the churches and after the fourth century became part of their dogma.
Thus, it was not that scholars examined the Bible thoroughly to see if such a doctrine was taught in it. Instead, secular and church politics largely determined the doctrine. In the book The Christian Tradition, author Jaroslav Pelikan calls attention to “the nontheological factors in the debate, many of which seemed ready again and again to determine its outcome, only to be countermanded by other forces like unto themselves. Doctrine often seemed to be the victim—or the product—of church politics and of conflicts of personality.”17 Yale professor E. Washburn Hopkins put it this way: “The final orthodox definition of the trinity was largely a matter of church politics.”18
How unreasonable the Trinity doctrine is compared with the simple Bible teaching that God is supreme and has no equal! As God says, “to whom will you people liken me or make me equal or compare me that we may resemble each other?”—Isaiah 46:5.
What It Represented
What did the gradual development of the Trinity idea represent? It was part of the falling away from true Christianity that Jesus foretold. (Matthew 13:24-43) The apostle Paul also had foretold the coming apostasy:
“The time is sure to come when, far from being content with sound teaching, people will be avid for the latest novelty and collect themselves a whole series of teachers according to their own tastes; and then, instead of listening to the truth, they will turn to myths.”—2 Timothy 4:3, 4, Catholic Jerusalem Bible.
One of those myths was the Trinity teaching. Some other myths alien to Christianity that also gradually developed were: the inherent immortality of the human soul, purgatory, Limbo, and eternal torment in hellfire.
So, what is the Trinity doctrine? It is actually a pagan doctrine masquerading as a Christian one. It was promoted by Satan to deceive people, to make God confusing and mysterious to them. This results in their also being more willing to accept other false religious ideas and wrong practices.
“By Their Fruits”
At Matthew 7:15-19, Jesus said that you could tell false religion from true religion in this way:
“Be on the watch for the false prophets that come to you in sheep’s covering, but inside they are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will recognize them. Never do people gather grapes from thorns or figs from thistles, do they? Likewise every good tree produces fine fruit, but every rotten tree produces worthless fruit . . . Every tree not producing fine fruit gets cut down and thrown into the fire.”
“If anyone makes the statement: ‘I love God,’ and yet is hating his brother, he is a liar. For he who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot be loving God, whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that the one who loves God should be loving his brother also.”
Apply the basic principle that true Christians must have love among themselves to what happened in both world wars of this century, as well as in other conflicts. People of the same religions of Christendom met on battlefields and slaughtered one another because of nationalistic differences. Each side claimed to be Christian, and each side was supported by its clergy, who claimed that God was on their side. That slaughter of “Christian” by “Christian” is rotten fruitage. It is a violating of Christian love, a denial of the laws of God.—See also 1 John 3:10-12.
A Day of Reckoning
Thus, the falling away from Christianity led not only to ungodly beliefs, such as the Trinity doctrine, but also to ungodly practices. Yet, there is a day of reckoning to come, for Jesus said: “Every tree not producing fine fruit gets cut down and thrown into the fire.” That is why God’s Word urges:
“Get out of her [false religion], my people, if you do not want to share with her in her sins, and if you do not want to receive part of her plagues. For her sins have massed together clear up to heaven, and God has called her acts of injustice to mind.”—Revelation 18:4, 5.
Soon God will ‘put it into the hearts’ of the political authorities to turn against false religion. They will “make her devastated and . . . will eat up her fleshy parts and will completely burn her with fire.” (Revelation 17:16, 17) Destroyed forever will be false religion with its pagan philosophies about God. In effect, God will say to the practicers of false religion as Jesus said in his day: “Your house is abandoned to you.”—Matthew 23:38.
True religion will survive God’s judgments, so that, finally, all honor and glory will be given to the One whom Jesus said is “the only true God.” He is the One identified by the psalmist who declared: “You, whose name is Jehovah, you alone are the Most High over all the earth.”—John 17:3; Psalm 83:18.
1. Encyclopædia Britannica, 1971, Volume 6, page 386.
2. A Short History of Christian Doctrine, by Bernhard Lohse, 1963, page 51.
3. Ibid., pages 52-3.
4. New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967, Volume VII, page 115.
5. A Short History of Christianity, by Martin E. Marty, 1959, page 91.
6. A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, 1892, Volume IV, page xvii.
7. A Short History of Christian Doctrine, page 53.
8. A Short History of Christianity, page 91.
9. The Church of the First Three Centuries, by Alvan Lamson, 1869, pages 75-6, 341.
10. Second Century Orthodoxy, by J. A. Buckley, 1978, pages 114-15.
11. New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967, Volume VII, page 115.
12. Ibid., Volume IV, page 436.
13. Ibid., page 251.
14. Ibid., page 436.
15. The New Encyclopædia Britannica, 1985, 15th Edition, Micropædia, Volume 1, page 665.
16. The Church of the First Three Centuries, page 52.
17. The Christian Tradition, by Jaroslav Pelikan, 1971, page 173.
18. Origin and Evolution of Religion, by E. Washburn Hopkins, 1923, page 339.
For further information, see the brochure Should You Believe in the Trinity? published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
As shown in previous articles in this series, although Theophilus and Tertullian used these words, they did not have in mind the Trinity believed by Christendom today.
[Picture on page 22]
God will cause political authorities to turn against false religion
[Picture on page 24]
True religion will survive God’s judgments