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Chapter 2. The Historical Roots of Trinitarianism: Constantine and Nicaea

Chapter 2

The Historical Roots of Trinitarianism:
Constantine and Nicaea

A basic definition of the Trinity

Even among those who uphold the doctrine of the Trinity, few know anything about it beyond the basic “God in three persons” formula. Even fewer know about the historical events that culminated in the creedal formulation of trinitarianism.

Since we will be looking at the historical roots of trinitarianism in this chapter and the “four pillars of trinitarianism” in the next few chapters, it is only right that we gain a basic understanding of what is the Trinity. The following definition of the Trinity is representative of how it is explained in the English-speaking world, and adheres to the trinitarian language of standard definitions given by trinitarians, some of whom we will cite.

For the meanings of English words, we consult The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th full edition) and Oxford Dictionary of English (3rd edition), abbreviated AHD and Oxford, respectively.

The following point-by-point explanation of the Trinity includes a few of my explanatory notes:

  • There is one and only one God.
  • God subsists in three persons.
  • Note: The word “subsist” is unfamiliar to most people, but it is commonly used in trinitarian writing to mean “to exist, be” (AHD).
  • The three persons are: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit.
  • God is not God except as Father, Son, and Spirit—the three together.
  • The three are distinct from each other, yet are not three Gods.
  • Each is fully God.
  • The three are coequal and coeternal.
  • Note: Trinitarians often use the term “Godhead” to refer to the triune God (AHD defines “Godhead” as “the Christian God, especially the Trinity”).
  • God is three persons but only one “being” or “essence”.
  • Note: Although the word “being” usually refers to a human being, trinitarians use it in the sense of “one’s basic or essential nature” (AHD, similarly Oxford).
  • Note: Although the word “person” usually means a human person, in trinitarian language it usually refers to a divine person (e.g. “God in three persons”).
  • Note: Trinitarians often use the Greek word hypostasis as an approximate equivalent of “person”. Hence God is three hypostases (three persons).
  • Note: The three hypostases—Father, Son, and Spirit—share one ousia (essence or substance). Hence trinitarians speak of three hypostases in one ousia (three persons in one substance).
  • Note: From ousia comes homoousios (of one essence or substance), which is historically the key term in trinitarianism because it is this term that supposedly makes trinitarianism “monotheistic”.
  • Note: Because the three persons are of one substance, they are said to be “consubstantial”.
  • By incarnation the second person of the Godhead—namely, the eternally preexistent God the Son—acquired a human nature and took on human existence as Jesus Christ, who now, as one person, possesses both a divine nature and a human nature, and is both fully God and fully man through the “hypostatic union” (of Christ’s two natures, divine and human, in one person or hypostasis).

This definition is complete in the sense that any further discussion on the Trinity is fundamentally an elaboration on these basic points, e.g. how the three hypostases relate to one another, or how they have different roles in salvation history (the economic Trinity), or how Christ’s divine nature relates to his human nature (debate over this last question resulted in years of bitter sectarian conflict within trinitarianism). Anyone who reads the formal or technical literature on the Trinity will soon discover that they tend to use Greek and Latin terms or concepts, and are imbued with neo-Platonic and other philosophical concepts. These generate more confusion than illumination on how the three persons can be one God. We will encounter a few of these concepts in this book, such as that of communicatio idiomatum.

Our basic definition of the Trinity is based on dozens of definitions given by trinitarian authorities, both Protestant and Catholic, including the following six definitions (which can be skipped on a first reading). We include a seventh statement, on the incarnation.

“The Christian doctrine of God, according to which he is three persons in one substance or essence.” (New Dictionary of Theology, “Trinity”)

“The trinity of God is defined by the Church as the belief that in God are three persons who subsist in one nature. The belief as so defined was reached only in the 4th and 5th centuries AD and hence is not explicitly and formally a biblical belief.” (Dictionary of the Bible, Father John L. McKenzie, “Trinity”)

“The term designating one God in three persons. Although not itself a biblical term, ‘the Trinity’ has been found a convenient designation for the one God self-revealed in Scripture as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It signifies that within the one essence of the Godhead we have to distinguish three ‘persons’ who are neither three gods on the one side, nor three parts or modes of God on the other, but coequally and coeternally God.” (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, “Trinity”)

“The term ‘Trinity’ is not a Biblical term, and we are not using Biblical language when we define what is expressed by it as the doctrine that there is one only and true God, but in the unity of the Godhead there are three coeternal and coequal Persons, the same in substance but distinct in subsistence.” (B.B. Warfield, ISBE, “Trinity”)

“The Trinity is the term employed to signify the central doctrine of the Christian religion—the truth that 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.’ In this Trinity of Persons the Son is begotten of the Father by an eternal generation, and the Holy Spirit proceeds by an eternal procession from the Father and the Son. Yet, notwithstanding this difference as to origin, the Persons are co-eternal and co-equal: all alike are uncreated and omnipotent.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, “The Blessed Trinity,” under “The Dogma of the Trinity”)

“It is time to lay down a basic, fundamental definition of the Trinity. But we need a short, succinct, accurate definition to start with. Here it is: Within the one Being that is God, there exists eternally three coequal and coeternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit … When speaking of the Trinity, we need to realize that we are talking about one what and three who’s. The one what is the Being or essence of God; the three who’s are the Father, Son, and Spirit.” (The Forgotten Trinity, James R. White, pp.26-27)

[The incarnation is] the act whereby the eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, without ceasing to be what he is, God the Son, took into union with himself what he before that act did not possess, a human nature, “and so He was and continues to be God and man in two distinct natures and one person, forever”. (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, “Incarnation”; the words in quotation marks are cited by EDT from the Westminster Shorter Catechism).

 

Homoousios has no biblical support, and is rejected by Luther

The word homoousios (“of one substance”) is historically the key term in trinitarianism because it is this term or its concept that, on account of the word “one,” gives trinitarianism some semblance of monotheism. The early trinitarian view that homoousios or its concept is “the foundation of orthodoxy” (Victorinus) is shared by modern trinitarians, yet the word homoousios itself is found nowhere in the Bible. That it has no biblical basis is noted by a lexical authority, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (NIDNTT, ed. Colin Brown, article God > The Trinity > NT). The following excerpt from this article cites Karl Barth who, despite being a trinitarian, frankly admits that the doctrine of the Trinity is not found in the Bible. The following excerpt has two levels of quotation. For the convenience of the reader, I put Barth’s words in color in order to separate them from the surrounding words of NIDNTT:

The NT does not contain the developed doctrine of the Trinity. [Barth says:] “The Bible lacks the express declaration that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are of equal essence and therefore in an equal sense God himself. And the other express declaration is also lacking, that God is God thus and only thus, i.e. as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These two express declarations, which go beyond the witness of the Bible, are the twofold content of the Church doctrine of the Trinity” (Karl Barth, CD, I, 1, 437). It also lacks such terms as trinity … and homoousios which featured in the Creed of Nicea (325).

Since homoousios is not a biblical term (as noted by Barth and NIDNTT), it comes as no surprise that strong objections to this term have come from the ranks of trinitarians. Sure enough, Martin Luther, a trinitarian, vehemently opposed homoousios for being an unscriptural term, going so far as to “hate” it. Cambridge Companion to the Trinity (p.151) quotes Luther as saying, “Our adversaries … are fanatics about words because they want us to demonstrate the truth of the trinitarian article … by asking us to assent to the term homoousios”. Cambridge Companion goes on to say that “trinitarian terms such as homoousios are for Luther a ‘stammering’ and ‘babbling’”.

Luther rejects homoousios even more vehemently in a statement quoted in Adolf Harnack’s seven-volume History of Dogma:

[Luther] declared such a term as homoousios to be unallowable in the strict sense, because it represents a bad state of things when such words are invented in the Christian system of faith: “… but if my soul hates the word homoousios and I prefer not to use it, I shall not be a heretic; for who will compel me to use it … Although the Arians had wrong views with regard to the faith, they were nevertheless very right in this … that they required that no profane and novel word should be allowed to be introduced into the rules of faith.” (History of Dogma, vol.7, ch.4, p.225, cf. Erlangen edition of Luther’s works, vol.5, p.505)

So vehement was Luther’s objection to the use of homoousios that he was willing to concede that the heretical Arians were “very right” in rejecting this “profane” word. Luther knew that his objection to homoousios would expose him to the charge of heresy because homoousios is the foundation stone of trinitarianism’s dubious claim to monotheism, and that without homoousios, trinitarianism would descend into explicit tritheism (the doctrine of three Gods).

A Catholic scholar’s admissions about trinitarianism

Luther comes from the ranks of Protestantism but is there similar dissent from the ranks of Catholicism? Hans Küng, one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the 20th century, wrote a section titled “No doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament” in his classic Christianity: Essence, History, and Future (p.95ff). Küng firmly and explicitly rejects trinitarianism in his work, but can we find a similar dissenting voice from the ranks of trinitarian Catholics? Yes.

An esteemed Bible dictionary—one of the most popular for two decades and in its time the most widely used one-volume Bible dictionary ever—was the scholarly Dictionary of the Bible by Father John L. McKenzie, which, though written by a Catholic, was also widely used by Protestants. The following are excerpts from “Trinity,” an article in the dictionary. In this article, McKenzie, himself a trinitarian, makes some observations that are unfavorable to trinitarianism, including that: (i) The doctrine of the Trinity was reached only in the 4th and 5th centuries, and does not represent biblical belief. (ii) The trinitarian terms used for describing God are Greek philosophical terms rather than biblical terms. (iii) Terms such as “essence” and “substance” were “erroneously” applied to God by early theologians. (iv) The personal reality of the Holy Spirit is uncertain and was a later development in trinitarianism. (v) The Trinity is a mystery that defies understanding. (vi) The Trinity is not mentioned or foreshadowed in the Old Testament. Here are some excerpts from his article:

TRINITY. The trinity of God is defined by the Church as the belief that in God are three persons who subsist in one nature. The belief as so defined was reached only in the 4th and 5th centuries AD and hence is not explicitly and formally a biblical belief. The trinity of persons within the unity of nature is defined in terms of “person” and “nature” which are Greek philosophical terms; actually the terms do not appear in the Bible. The trinitarian definitions arose as the result of long controversies in which these terms and others such as “essence” and “substance” were erroneously applied to God by some theologians.

. . . . .

The personal reality of the Spirit emerged more slowly than the personal reality of Father and Son, which are personal terms … What is less clear about the Spirit is His personal reality; often He is mentioned in language in which His personal reality is not explicit.

. . . . .

… in Catholic belief the Trinity of persons within the unity of nature is a mystery which ultimately escapes understanding; and in no respect is it more mysterious than in the relations of the persons to each other.

. . . . .

The OT does not contain suggestions or foreshadowing of the Trinity of persons. What it does contain are the words which the NT employs to express the Trinity of persons such as Father, Son, Word, Spirit, etc.

 

The Gnostic use of homoousios

Gnosticism is widely regarded as the greatest threat to the life of the early church in the first two centuries. We won’t explain what Gnosticism is (but see Appendix 7 for a brief explanation) since it is a standard topic in church histories, except to mention that it was a cancerous movement that grew deep roots in the church and nearly killed it. Eminent historian Justo L. González says, “Of all these differing interpretations of Christianity, none was as dangerous, nor as close to victory, as was gnosticism.” [1]

It will come as a shock to trinitarians that the Gnostics were the first to use the word homoousios. The first person known to have used it was the Gnostic theologian Basilides (2nd century A.D.) who used homoousios to explain his concept of a “threefold sonship consubstantial with the god who is not”. [2]

When Gnosticism was at its peak, homoousios had a reputation for being a Gnostic term. Well before the Council of Nicaea in 325, the church fathers were already aware of the Gnostic use of homoousios. According to R.P.C. Hanson’s authoritative work, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, p.191: “Hippolytus quotes Gnostics as using the word homoousios”; “Clement of Alexandria also uses the word in quotations of Gnostic authors, as does Irenaeus”; “Origen similarly uses the word only when he is quoting Gnostic heretics.” The academic authority of R.P.C. Hanson’s work is well known to all church historians and patristics scholars.

Although Gnosticism was in decline by the third or fourth century, it left some of its roots in the church as seen in the adoption of homoousios. A central concept in Gnosticism is the emanation of divine beings, the lesser from the greater. It is therefore not surprising that at Nicaea it was decreed on pain of anathema that the second person emanates from the first person, much as light emanates from a source of light. Nicaean formulations such as “God of God, Light of Light” and other lofty descriptions are nothing more than direct echoes of Greek philosophy and religion.

Trinitarianism or tritheism?

Trinitarianism is the doctrine of one God in three persons whereas tritheism is the doctrine of three Gods. Tritheism is a special case of polytheism, the belief in many Gods (e.g. Hinduism). Trinitarians deny that trinitarianism is tritheism, yet the two are intrinsically indistinguishable. To put the matter plainly, trinitarianism is tritheism that denies it is tritheistic.

In trying to make sense of trinitarianism, the immediate problem that we encounter is its use of doublespeak, in assigning two different meanings to the word “God” and then switching back and forth between them, sometimes to evade logical dilemmas. There is the first sense of “God” in which God is not God except as Father, Son, and Spirit—the three together. This formulation is designed as a means of avoiding explicit tritheism. (Karl Barth says that this is one of the two foundational tenets of trinitarianism.)

But there is a second (and contradictory) sense of “God” in which each of the three persons of the Trinity is individually and fully God: “So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God” (Athanasian Creed). Trinitarians say that each person is “fully God” (White, Grudem, Bowman) or “fully and completely God” (ESV Study Bible, p.2513). The historically important Fourth Lateran Council (1215, Rome) is even clearer: “each is God, whole and entire”. In other words, the Father is God whole and entire; the Son is God whole and entire; the Spirit is God whole and entire; and yet the three together are one God whole and entire.

In trinitarianism, each person of the triune Godhead, whether the Father or the Son or the Spirit, is fully God, coeternally God, and coequally God, such that trinitarians can and do speak of “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit” in language that ascribes whole deity to each. Whole deity of each is maintained even if we reverse the word order within each of the three clauses: “the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God” (Athanasian Creed).

Trinitarianism posits that each person—whether the Father or the Son or the Spirit—is “fully” God (“each is God, whole and entire,” Fourth Lateran Council). Moreover, trinitarianism assigns sufficient distinction between the persons such that the Father is not to be confused with the Son, nor the Son with the Spirit, nor the Father with the Spirit. The Athanasian Creed says, “For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit”.

Since the three are each “fully” God yet are three distinct persons, it would be semantically correct to say that they are three Gods (tritheism). The force and clarity and obviousness of this argument is noted, yet its validity is rejected, by the Athanasian Creed: “And yet they are not three Gods, but one God”.

This clear violation of semantic sense for which the Athanasian Creed offers no explanation apart from denial, must be rejected unless it is allowed by mitigating factors such as explicit Scriptural support. But does the Bible teach the three-in-one trinitarian formulation? Many trinitarians admit that it is absent in the Scriptures. For example, Dr. Charles C. Ryrie, author of Ryrie Study Bible, and longtime professor of systematic theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, makes a shocking admission:

But many doctrines are accepted by evangelicals as being clearly taught in the Scripture for which there are no proof texts. The doctrine of the Trinity furnishes the best example of this. It is fair to say that the Bible does not clearly teach the doctrine of the Trinity. In fact, there is not even one proof text, if by proof text we mean a verse or passage that ‘clearly’ states that there is one God who exists in three persons … The above illustrations prove the fallacy of concluding that if something is not proof texted in the Bible we cannot clearly teach the results … If that were so, I could never teach the doctrine of the Trinity or the deity of Christ or the deity of the Holy Spirit. (Basic Theology, pp. 89-90)

Millard Erickson, well-known trinitarian and specialist on trinitarian doctrine, and the author of Christian Theology, writes:

[The Trinity] is not clearly or explicitly taught anywhere in Scripture, yet it is widely regarded as a central doctrine, indispensable to the Christian faith. In this regard, it goes contrary to what is virtually an axiom of biblical doctrine, namely, that there is a direct correlation between the scriptural clarity of a doctrine and its cruciality to the faith and life of the church. (God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity, p.11)

The standard way of explaining away the tritheistic underpinnings of trinitarianism—namely, by positing that the three persons share one essence (homoousios)—is unconvincing. That is because a common essence characterizes tritheism as much as it does trinitarianism! Whether we speak of a unity of three Gods (tritheism) or a unity of three persons in one God (trinitarianism), the three share the one substance or essence of deity. Applying the concept of “one essence” to three persons who are each “fully” God does not make them “one God”; it only makes them a perfect union of three full Gods in one essence. Hence the concept of homoousios (one in substance)—whose first known use was by the Gnostic theologian Basilides, and which was later adopted at Nicaea against the objections of some bishops from both camps—offers no help to trinitarianism but in fact draws unwelcome attention to trinitarianism’s affinity with tritheism!

The tritheistic underpinnings of trinitarianism come out in many books such as James R. White’s The Forgotten Trinity, a book endorsed by J.I. Packer, Gleason Archer, Norman Geisler, and John MacArthur, indicating its acceptance among leading evangelicals.

White first gives what he calls a “short, succinct, accurate” definition of the Trinity: “Within the one Being that is God, there exists eternally three coequal and coeternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” (p.26) Here White makes a distinction between “Being” and “person” such that God is three persons yet one Being. To explain what this means, White says:

When speaking of the Trinity, we need to realize that we are talking about one what and three who’s. The one what is the Being or essence of God; the three who’s are the Father, Son, and Spirit.

Hence trinitarianism’s claim to monotheism is based on the concept of “one Being” or “one essence” rather than “one person”. In his attempt to give trinitarianism some semblance of monotheism, White is forced to make God a what, not a who. The God of trinitarianism is technically an “it” rather than a “He”.

If you take this to mean that the trinitarian God is not a person, you are correct. Tertullian says: “God is the name for the substance” (cited by J.N.D. Kelly in Early Christian Doctrines, p.114). C.S. Lewis, a wholehearted trinitarian, says: “Christian theology does not believe God to be a person. It believes Him to be such that in Him a trinity of persons is consistent with a unity of Deity. In that sense it believes Him to be something very different from a person.” (Christian Reflections, p.79).

In the strange logic of trinitarianism, the mere use of “one” as in “one substance” is enough to qualify trinitarianism to be monotheism. This is what we might call “monotheism by vocabulary”. The only way for trinitarians to obtain “one God” from the notion of “one substance” is to define God as a substance (Tertullian), which is why trinitarians such as James White do not hesitate to say that God is a “what”.

Just as strange, the tritheistic concept of “three persons who are each fully God” (note the crucial word “fully”) does not disqualify trinitarianism from being monotheism. This is trying to have it both ways, to have monotheism and tritheism, to have God as one and God as three, to have one God and three who are each fully God. In the final analysis, the convoluted logic of trinitarianism is the result of an attempt to prove, almost mathematically, that three equals one or that 1/3 equals one.

White continues: “The Father is not 1/3 of God, the Son 1/3 of God, the Spirit 1/3 of God. Each is fully God, coequal with the others, and that eternally.” This statement is problematic because if God is three persons, then anyone who is “fully God”—note the word “fully” used by White, by which he means whole and entire God—would have to be all three persons at the same time or else he would be partially God (unless we change the definition of “God” using doublespeak).

The problem runs deeper than that, for if Jesus is not all three persons at the same time, he would not be God at all, for God must always exist as three persons or else we would be breaking the “monotheism” of trinitarianism such that it becomes tritheism. White rejects the idea that Jesus is one-third of God, yet it cannot be denied that Jesus is one-third of the Trinity, which trinitarians equate with God.

White’s assertion that the three are each “fully God” is but a naked assertion of pure tritheism. But trinitarians vehemently deny that their doctrine is tritheistic by insisting that God is not God through the Father alone, or the Son alone, or the Spirit alone, but by all three together. This is one of the two foundational tenets of trinitarianism (Barth) and is explicitly stated by Erickson, a prominent spokesman for trinitarianism:

God could not exist simply as Father, or as Son, or as Holy Spirit. Nor could he exist as Father and Son, or as Father and Spirit, or as Son and Spirit, without the third of these persons in that given case. Further, none of these could exist without being part of the Trinity… None has the power of life within itself alone. Each can only exist as part of the Triune God. (God in Three Persons, p.264)

Erickson’s statement that “none has the power of life within itself alone” is a most shocking way of describing someone who is supposed to be fully God (and, in the case of the Father, directly contradicts John 5:26 which says that “the Father has life in himself”). Equally shocking is the statement, “none of these could exist without being part of the Trinity”. Erickson is not merely saying that God is ontologically triune, but that each person has no power of existence on his own outside the framework of the Trinity! That statement is probably designed as a means of avoiding explicit tritheism.

Erickson’s statement that “God could not exist simply as Father, or as Son, or as Holy Spirit” directly contradicts the trinitarian assertion that the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God, and the Spirit is fully God.

The stark reality is that Erickson has done the best he could in his attempt to explain trinitarianism, a doctrine that has never been explained coherently for two thousand years. That is why trinitarianism is often said to be a mystery (cf. White, p.173, “a mystery beyond the comprehension of man”). It remains a mystery up to the 21st century because trinitarians still cannot explain coherently how three persons, each of whom is God whole and entire, can be one God together. This accounts for the predictable retreat into “mystery” even by a brilliant mind as Augustine’s.

But that is a distortion of the meaning of “mystery” in the Bible. In the Bible, a mystery is not something illogical or beyond logical comprehension, but something that is unexplained only because we are missing some crucial information, e.g. the mystery of how the pyramids were built, or a mystery being investigated by Sherlock Holmes (but once he solves it, it is no longer an incomprehensible mystery).

Paul says that we understand a mystery as clear as light when God reveals it to us: “to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (Eph.3:9). Paul aspires to “declare the mystery of Christ” not incomprehensibly but “that I may make it clear” (Col.4:3-4), a statement cannot be true of the mystery of the Trinity.

In trinitarianism, a mystery remains a mystery even after an explanation has been given for it! But not so in the Bible. The following Bible dictionary says that a mystery is not something “for which no answer can be found” but something that “once revealed is known and understood”:

But whereas “mystery” may mean, and in contemporary usage often does mean, a secret for which no answer can be found, this is not the connotation of the term mystērion in classical and biblical Gk. In the NT mystērion signifies a secret which is being, or even has been, revealed, which is also divine in scope, and needs to be made known by God to men through his Spirit. In this way the term comes very close to the NT word apokalypsis, “revelation”. Mystērion is a temporary secret, which once revealed is known and understood, a secret no longer. (New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed., “Mystery”)

In fact the unbiblical teaching of Sabellianism or modalism (which, to explain it simplistically, says that God, in history, is manifested in three modes, Father, Son, and Spirit, similar to how H2O can be liquid, ice, or vapor) is infinitely more logical than trinitarianism. That is because modalism is free of self-contradiction, as is tritheism. If trinitarianism is to be logical and self-consistent, it can only be so as modalism or tritheism, both of which are as unbiblical as trinitarianism.

Tritheism, being a special case of polytheism, would be expected to borrow from the language of polytheism. Sure enough, the famously polytheistic religion of Hinduism would occasionally speak of the “divine essence” or “divine substance” [3]—a fact that further exposes trinitarianism’s affinity with tritheism and polytheism.

The trinitarian term “divine substance” is also used in polytheistic Greek mythology [4] and in Gnosticism, [5] yet is notably absent from the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures!

In my days as a good trinitarian, I believed in a tripartite Godhead. Because we trinitarians believed in three coequal persons, we could not speak properly of one God but of one Godhead. For some strange reason, we could not speak of three Gods even though each of these divine “persons” (as trinitarians also call them) are fully and coequally God. There is every right to speak of three Gods, and not just three persons, in the Trinity who are said to be one in “substance,” a word derived from the Greek ousia which is used more appropriately of material things, but which has been conscripted into trinitarian use because a better word could not be found. When you start inventing terms such as “trinity” or “God the Son” or “God-man,” you will be forced to invent other terms such as “substance” and impose meanings on words such as “God” which are not intended in the Bible.

If “God is spirit” (John 4:24), how can God be a substance? In the trinitarian absurdity, which is not based on biblical procedure, the material concept of “substance” is brought in to explain how there can be three persons in the “one” trinitarian God. Common sense tells us that if there are three persons (not just three faces or three heads on one person), each of whom is fully God, then there are three Gods. This is incontrovertible in terms of the laws of syntax, semantics, and plain language. Yet Christians including myself have been so befuddled that we could not see the obvious. The brainwashing power of tradition is frightening because it leads to blindness. The spiritual state of the church is just as Jesus put it, “the blind leading the blind,” with the inevitable consequence that both “fall into a pit” (Mt.15:14; Lk.6:39).

May Yahweh God be merciful to those in the church who pursue the truth, and may He grant them what He had promised:

I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them. (Isaiah 42:16, ESV)


 

Historical Currents: Constantine and Nicaea

How has the doctrine of the Trinity with its use of unbiblical language and its infusion of Greek philosophical concepts such as homoousios and hypostasis and eternal generation become the cornerstone doctrine of Christianity? The answer is to be found in the historical events of the early church.

Some three hundred years after the time of Jesus, the Gentile church had by then made him an object of worship. The divine Jesus, called God the Son, was a creation of the Gentile (non-Jewish) church that had assumed for itself the right to elevate Jesus from being man to being God. Deified men were familiar to the Gentile world of the day; indeed the Greeks had many gods who appeared all too human, and the Romans worshipped as gods many of their own emperors, including Constantine.

The way the Gentile church deified Jesus reminds us of what Jesus said about the way some had been treating John the Baptist: “they did with him whatever they wished” (Mt. 17:12). With similar brazenness, the churches did with Jesus whatever they wished. Did they really think that Jesus would have consented to their “lifting him up” to be God (cp. John 8:28, where “lifted up” refers instead to his being lifted up on the cross)?

From that time on, the biblical Jesus faded from the Gentile church in matters of faith and practice, and the one who took his place was the God-man Jesus Christ of trinitarianism.

We must not be quick to assume that the intentions of the church leaders were wrong when they did this. In deifying Jesus, they undoubtedly thought that they were doing what is right. But good intentions do not justify wrong actions, violence, idolatry, or unbiblical doctrines, as goes the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

The deification of Jesus in 325 and the Spirit in 381

Few Christians know that trinitarianism was not generally accepted in the Christian church until A.D. 381, three and a half centuries after the time of Jesus, in which year the Council of Constantinople, convened by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, affirmed that the Holy Spirit is of the same “substance” as the Father and the Son. It was the first such official declaration in church history; and by this ecclesiastical pronouncement, the Holy Spirit was declared the third person of the Trinity. Before this happened, there had been no trinity of “consubstantial” beings. To speak of a Trinity in the New Testament is therefore anachronistic, for the church did not even recognize the Holy Spirit as a part of a trinity until 350 years after the time of Christ.

The formal deification of Jesus took place a half century earlier, in 325 at the Council of Nicaea, despite the fact that the New Testament has no clear or straightforward or incontrovertible statement that Jesus is God. The process of deifying Jesus started even earlier, in the latter half of the second century, when bold and scripturally unsustainable statements were being made by some Gentile church leaders on the deity of Jesus. The deification of Jesus then gained momentum in the Hellenistic Gentile church, during which process Jesus was being elevated higher and higher towards deity, but not without entailing much controversy and hostility, even physical violence which was carried out with no apparent concern for the disgracefulness of such behavior.[6]

The problems with the Council of Nicaea

The ancient city of Constantinople is located within the area of today’s Istanbul, Turkey, whereas the ancient city of Nicaea is located 60 miles away, within today’s Iznik, Turkey. These were Greek-speaking cities in the Byzantine Empire at the time of Emperor Constantine (born 272, died 337). The city of Constantinople was founded in 330 by Constantine himself on the site of the earlier Byzantium. Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Muslims in 1453, and was renamed Istanbul.

In 325, Emperor Constantine, also known as Constantine the Great, brought together the First Council of Nicaea which in its definitive Nicene Creed introduced the key word homoousios to declare that Jesus is of the “same substance” (consubstantial) with God the Father and therefore coequal with Him. With the official deification of Jesus in place, the church now had two Gods (ditheism) or two persons who are coequally one God (binitarianism) by virtue of their sharing one substance.

A few decades later, in 381 at the Council of Constantinople, the Holy Spirit was added as the third person to the Godhead to formally make God a trinity. The doctrine of three persons in the Godhead, a formulation that is polytheistic rather than monotheistic, was not viewed as problematic, unbiblical or heretical by much of the Gentile church, for it was a church that, after all, was immersed in a milieu in which polytheism had taken deep root, and in which Gnostic concepts were familiar to its populace.

In short, the deity of Christ, in terms of his consubstantiality with the Father, was not officially established until 325, a few months after Constantine had become the sole emperor of the Roman empire. Seeing the sectarian conflicts among church leaders over the issue of Christ’s deity, and fearing that this may destabilize the unity of his empire, Constantine immediately instructed the Christian bishops to gather at his residence in Nicaea.

He took personal charge of the proceedings of this council even though he was not technically a Christian (he was not baptized until 12 years later, just shortly before he died). Not being a Christian, he knew little about Christian doctrine, and had to depend on the counsel of one or two Christian advisors. Despite being a non-Christian who lacked a deep understanding of Christian doctrine, he imposed doctrinal unity upon the gathering of some three hundred bishops who represented a multitude of different—in many cases, irreconcilable—doctrinal views. He lacked a good knowledge of Christian teaching but as an astute politician, he knew it would be politically expedient to support and establish the stronger elements of this assembly of bishops. The party that favored the full deity of Christ was slightly stronger than the one that did not, even though the majority of bishops still believed in the subordination of the Son to the Father. That being the case, it was politically astute of Constantine to support the side that was advocating the deity of Christ. In any case, the deification of Christ was not something that Constantine himself would have found objectionable because Roman emperors too were deified, himself included.

Thus the Council of Nicaea, consisting of some 300 church leaders, assumed for itself the authority over all Christendom to deify Jesus, declaring him God by invoking no authority but its own. This relatively small group of church leaders did with Jesus “as they wished” when they “lifted him up” as God and thereby “crucified the Son of God again” (Heb.6:6). They thought that they were glorifying Jesus by declaring him to be of the same substance as God the Creator. But how is a person glorified when he is declared to be what he is not, and then made into an object of idolatry?

The number of bishops at Nicaea cannot be established with certainty. Contemporary reports range from 220 attendees (according to Eusebius of Caesarea, the most important historian of the early church from the early church) to 318 attendees (Jerome and Rufius; cf. Wikipedia, First Council of Nicaea, “Attendees”). Of the estimated 1,800 bishops of the church at that time, only 300 attended the council, some of whom “were poorly enough acquainted with Christian theology” (Catholic Encyclopedia, vol.11, p.44, Nicaea, Councils of). This last observation is clearly a cause for concern in regard to making official declarations on fundamental Bible doctrines.

We can draw a few conclusions from these observations. Firstly, only one in six church leaders were present at Nicaea. Given that the council was fully funded by Constantine who provided for the travel, food and accommodation expenses of every participant, why were 83% of the bishops absent from the council? (At that time, a bishop was basically a senior church clergy.) Even the bishop of Rome, whose office later became the Papal office, did not attend the council, but sent a representative there. What kind of authority did this council actually have?

And how do we account for the discrepancies in the reported number of attendees? The figures were provided by bishops who had personally attended the council, yet there is a difference of 100 between the highest and lowest estimates. One can only wonder at the council’s reliability in matters of historical observation. Or did some of the bishops attend the meetings inconsistently?

The statement by The Catholic Encylopedia that some of them had a poor understanding of Christian teaching leads to the question: How many are “some”? 10? 50? 100? On what basis were they appointed bishops if they were unable to give proper teaching to their own congregations?

Another problem—though not of their own fault—was the dire lack of access to the Scriptures even among the bishops. Recognizing this problem, Constantine commissioned Eusebius of Caesarea to make fifty copies of the Bible.[7] But this imperial decree was issued in 331, which made it far too late to moderate the doctrinal verdicts of Nicaea in 325.

The Nicene Creed

The term “Nicene Creed” is technically ambiguous because it can refer to the historically important creed adopted at the Council of Nicaea in 325, or the expanded creed adopted at the Council of Constantinople in 381. The later creed of 381, formally known as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed but often simply the Nicene Creed, is the one adopted by trinitarian churches today because it includes the Holy Spirit in a trinity whereas the earlier creed of 325 contains no explicit trinitarian formulation. [8]

The following is the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed as found in J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Creeds (3rd ed., p.297), a standard work on the early church creeds. For a historical-theological discussion on the creed, see Early Christian Doctrines, chapters 9 and 10, by the same author.

We believe in one God, the Father, almighty,

maker of heaven and earth,

of all things visible and invisible;


And in one Lord Jesus Christ,

the only-begotten Son of God,

begotten from the Father before all ages,

light from light, true God from true God,

begotten not made, of one substance with the Father,

through Whom all things came into existence,

Who because of us men and because of our salvation

came down from heaven,

and was incarnate from the Holy Spirit

and the Virgin Mary and became man,

and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,

and suffered and was buried,

and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures

and ascended to heaven,

and sits on the right hand of the Father,

and will come again with glory to judge living and dead,

of whose kingdom there will be no end;


And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver,

Who proceeds from the Father,

Who with the Father and the Son is together

worshipped and together glorified,

Who spoke through the prophets;

in one holy Catholic and apostolic church.


We confess one baptism to the remission of sins;

we look forward to the resurrection of the dead

and the life of the world to come.

 

Amen.

Few Christians know anything about trinitarianism beyond the bare fact that it is a doctrine of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit united in one substance as one God. In fact some Christians don’t even know about the one substance, for they simply equate trinitarianism with the notion that Jesus is God. But if asked whether trinitarianism is a biblical doctrine, they would answer with a resounding “yes”. But are they aware that this doctrine did not become a creed until the fourth century? The Catholic scholar, Father John L. McKenzie, says: “the belief that in God are three persons who subsist in one nature … was reached only in the 4th and 5th centuries AD and hence is not explicitly and formally a biblical belief.”

How can a doctrine that arrived some 300 years after Jesus be a biblical doctrine? Or did the doctrine somehow “evolve” out of the Bible over a 300-year period, to use the evolutionary language that is freely applied to many disciplines today? The truth of the matter is that trinitarianism developed in the Gentile Hellenistic church from the latter part of the 2nd century after it had lost most of its connections to the early Jewish church from the middle of the same century. The Gentile church in its determination to exalt the man Christ Jesus higher and higher in the direction of deity, indeed towards full equality with God, went through a doctrinal process that culminated in the formal deification of Jesus Christ at the Council of Nicaea in 325.

The early church knew that Jesus is not coequal with his Father

Even up to the time of Nicaea and slightly beyond, the majority of church leaders did not accept the coequality of Jesus with his Father. The majority still believed, in agreement with the Bible, that Jesus was lower than and subordinate to his Father, a doctrine which in its various forms is known as subordinationism. In fact subordinationism was the “orthodox” position prior to Nicaea but became the “heretical” position after Nicaea. It is a historical fact that subordinationism was the common orthodoxy of the church right up to the time of Athanasius in the fourth century. (Athanasius was the most ardent proponent of trinitarianism in the early church.) We see this historical fact in statements made by two esteemed academic authorities:

Subordinationism. Teaching about the Godhead which regards either the Son as subordinate to the Father or the Holy Ghost as subordinate to both. It is a characteristic tendency in much of Christian teaching of the first three centuries, and is a marked feature of such otherwise orthodox Fathers as St. Justin and St. Irenaeus … By the standards of orthodoxy established in the 4th cent., such a position came to be regarded as clearly heretical in its denial of the co-equality of the Three Persons of the Trinity.” (The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., pp. 1552-1553)

“With the exception of Athanasius virtually every theologian, East and West, accepted some form of subordinationism at least up to the year 355; subordinationism might indeed, until the denouement [resolution] of the controversy, have been described as accepted orthodoxy.” (R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, page xix)

The academic reputation of R.P.C. Hanson’s work in patristic studies is hard to overstate. Catholic and Protestant scholars have said of this book: “the most comprehensive account of the subject in modern English scholarship,” “the standard English scholarly treatment of the trinitarian controversies of the fourth century,” and “for almost twenty years, Hanson’s work has provided the standard narrative description of the doctrine and dynamics of the fourth-century trinitarian conflicts”.

If subordinationism was the orthodox position even as late as 355 (R.P.C. Hanson), how did the Nicene Creed of 325 manage to declare Jesus’ coequality with God? Most Christians don’t know the answer to this question, yet it is of the greatest importance because it concerns the central tenet of trinitarianism, that Jesus is God. So what is the answer to this question? The answer is Constantine.

Constantine

Few Christians know anything about Constantine the Great (A.D. 272–337) who became the sole emperor of the Roman Empire on September 19, 324.[9] From September 324 when he became the sole emperor, to March 325 when the Council of Nicaea commenced, there was a separation of only six or seven months.[10] It was Constantine himself who summoned the church leaders to his residence in Nicaea. He later spoke to them at the council, and largely directed [11] the proceedings of the 300 or so church leaders (“bishops”). He was the pivotal advocate [12] of the key word homoousios which was used by the council to affirm that Jesus is of the “same substance” as God the Father.

Let’s get this clear. The decisive creed of the church is based on the unbiblical doctrine of consubstantiality that was advanced by a Roman emperor who at the time was not even baptized, and was still the chief priest of the empire’s pagan rites! The word homoousios was itself unbiblical and Constantine probably received it from one of his Christian advisors (most scholars think it was Ossius, [13] the bishop of the city of Cordova in Spain).

The thoroughly pagan nature of homoousios can be seen in the following historical observation: “[Ossius of Cordova] probably mentioned to the emperor that the Platonic concept of a first and second Deity was somewhat similar to the Christian belief in God the Father and his Son the Word, and how this similarity might be used in converting pagans to Christianity.” [14]

The heated debates at Nicaea, mainly between trinitarians and Arians, were not centered on Scripture (though the protagonists on each side would sometimes invoke Scripture to support their cases). Fundamentally, both trinitarianism and Arianism are unbiblical, and both are rooted in Greek philosophy. The lofty Nicene phrase, “Light from light,” for example, is the teaching of emanation that was prominent in Gnosticism.

Remarkably, the early church creeds did not cite a single verse of Scripture in support of the deity of Jesus. We must not, however, anachronistically expect the early Gentile church to rely on the Scriptures for guidance in all matters of faith. The principle of sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) was established only much later in church history, and has never been accepted by the Catholic Church. In reality, the historic church councils regarded themselves the final authority in all matters of faith, a position that endures in the Catholic Church to this day.

In the drafting of the Nicene Creed which Constantine participated in, he imposed [15] the word homoousios, the Greek equivalent of the Latin consubstantialis, probably through the advice of one or two of his counsels. This became the pivotal word in trinitarianism, yet was provided by a pagan emperor who, as head of the Roman Empire, appointed himself the head of the Church, that is, the “Bishop of bishops,” at a time when he was still functioning as the Pontifex Maximus, the chief pagan priest of the Roman Empire.[16] It makes one shudder to know that the Nicene Creed was formulated under the auspices of a still pagan Roman emperor, and primarily for political reasons, notably the preservation of the unity and stability of his empire.

It is important to note that when Constantine was baptized shortly before he died, he was baptized not by a trinitarian bishop but by the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia! [17] What it means is that Constantine died an Arian, that is, as one who does not accept the deity of Jesus and his consubstantiality with the Father! Can anyone make sense of this? Perhaps it tells us how much or how little Constantine cared about Christian doctrine except when it could be used to further his political purposes.[18]

Will anyone still want to maintain that all this “evolved” out of the Bible? Constantine forced the church into doctrinal unity, and overrode the majority who still believed in the subordination of the Son to the Father. He established the Nicene Creed as the faith of the church by command, backed by the law of the Roman Empire.[19] Constantine did this for the purpose of maintaining political unity in his empire. By suppressing dissent in the church, the freedom of the church—libertas ecclesiae—was stamped out by the many instances of excommunication from the church and banishment as criminals under Roman law. To put it simply, one must believe that Jesus is God or face the horrible consequences.

Few Christians know anything about the historical development of trinitarian dogma and the Nicene Creed. Some may be shocked to hear that the pivotal enabler of this doctrine was the pagan Roman Emperor Constantine, who was not even a baptized Christian at the time he convened the Council of Nicaea in 325. He directed the proceedings of the council both personally and through his appointed representatives, guiding the council to adopt the then controversial view that Jesus is coequal with the Father in one essence, and eventually making this dogma part of state law in the Roman Empire.[20] Thus we have a doctrine central to Christendom which was determined by an emperor who at Nicaea was still functioning as the chief priest of the Roman pagan deities. This, then, is the origin of official trinitarian dogma.

The unbiblical nature of homoousios

The Nicene Creed, like its key word homoousios, has no biblical basis (the word appears nowhere in the Bible), which is not surprising given that the creed was drafted by an assembly of Gentile church leaders under the oversight of an as yet non-Christian emperor, at a time when the Gentile church had already been losing touch with its Jewish roots even as far back as almost two centuries earlier. The New Testament, it ought to be remembered, was written by Jews with the exception of Luke–Acts.[21] The concepts espoused by the Nicene Creed would have sounded foreign to the New Testament writers.

We have seen that homoousios is unbiblical and that the early church Fathers associated its use with the Gnostics. Indeed the first man known to have used it was the Gnostic teacher Basilides (2nd century A.D.) who used homoousios to explain his concept of a “threefold sonship consubstantial with the god who is not”. We have also noted that Martin Luther vehemently opposed the use of homoousios, and that NIDNTT (ed. Colin Brown) says, in agreement with Karl Barth, that homoousios has no biblical basis.

Regarding homoousios (Latin consubstantialis), Hans Küng, one of the preeminent theologians in contemporary Catholicism, says that “consubstantial, with its background in Greek philosophy, was incomprehensible not only to Jews but also to Jewish Christians”. Küng continues:

Constantine himself had the unbiblical word “of the same substance” (Greek homoousios, Latin consubstantialis) inserted; later it was to cause a great controversy. The subordination of the Son to the one God and Father (“the” God), as was generally taught by Origen and the theologians of the previous period, was now replaced by an essential, substantial equality of the Son with the Father, so that in the future it was possible to speak of God the Son and God the Father. [22]

Küng makes some important observations here. Among them is that prior to Nicaea, the teaching of the subordination of the Son to the Father was standard in the church. Thus Nicaea is the triumph of a powerful minority in the church, and a radical departure from the teaching of the church in the first and second centuries. There were, of course, a few leaders such as Justin Martyr and Melito of Sardis who earlier on were already taking the position that Jesus is God and as a result were promulgating ditheism or binitarianism (the belief in two divine persons) though not yet trinitarianism since they did not regard the Holy Spirit as the third divine person.

Because the Nicene Creed had deviated, as Küng points out, from the earlier teachings represented by people such as Origen the famous Alexandrian teacher, it comes as no surprise that the deviation of the Nicene Creed from the New Testament was all the more pronounced on account of the greater time separation. After the NT period, the teachings of the church leaders, in combination with the separation of the Gentile church from its Jewish mother church, especially after A.D. 135, [23] led to teachings that were becoming progressively distant from the New Testament.

From the fourth century, the acceptance of this new creed was made the determining mark and touchstone of faith for the Christian. He is required to believe that Jesus is God or else he will be condemned by the church as a heretic and by the state as a criminal. This is a complete violation of the spirit of the Bible which never prohibits anyone from examining the Bible and coming to his or her own genuine conclusions in the pursuit of God’s truth. And since the Bible does not teach the deity of Jesus in the first place, it is doubly certain that the Bible nowhere makes salvation conditional on believing in his alleged deity. It can be said without any fear of contradiction that no verse in the New Testament states that one must believe that Jesus is God in order to be saved. It demonstrates how contrary the Nicene Creed, with its doctrinal requirements, is to the spirit of the Word of God as taught in the New Testament.

Constantine’s Creed

These historical facts are known to church historians and patristics scholars but very few Christians know anything about them. They may be surprised to hear from the great British patristics scholar, J.N.D. Kelly, that the Nicene Creed which established Christ’s coequality with God is in fact Constantine’s creed (Kelly twice calls it “his creed”).[24]

The trinitarian creed that establishes Christ as God is, let it be said again, Constantine’s creed. This historical fact doesn’t register in the minds of most Christians, just as it didn’t register in my mind when I was a trinitarian. Looking back at my own biblical and theological training in England, which adds up to six years of study at two Bible colleges and a university, I don’t recall that the historical roots of trinitarianism were ever discussed, not even in courses on church history. Why was this so? I frankly don’t know the answer to this question. I won’t go so far as to say that there was a cover-up.

I did a careful study of the work by Dr. J.N.D. Kelly, which is still an authoritative work on early Christian doctrines. I still have an old copy of this work which I read in my student days, with carefully written notes on the margins of every page. J.N.D. Kelly’s book is, however, a work on church doctrine and not a work on church history, so the historical details won’t be presented in the same way as they would in a historical work about the church (despite Dr. Kelly’s impressive knowledge of church history). It was not until I had read more deeply into the church history of that period that the significance of the events of that era finally hit me. Even though Dr. Kelly was not writing specifically on church history, his familiarity with the subject comes out with striking clarity when he bluntly describes the Nicene Creed as “his (Constantine’s) creed”. Somehow the force of these words didn’t strike me when I first read them. How did I overlook them? This is a question I myself cannot answer. Was it because I had thought that these scholars, Dr. Kelly included, were Christians and probably trinitarians, so they would not mean anything negative by this statement? But how can such a statement be taken positively?

What is clear by now is that trinitarian doctrine arose from what the eminent theologian Hans Küng calls the “realpolitik” of Constantine (realpolitik is a German word for “practical politics”). In other words, Constantine was not primarily interested in any true theological stance of the Christian church.[25] Christian theology was probably not something that he, as a non-Christian at the time, would understand—or care to—for what ultimately mattered to him was the politics of his empire, its unity and stability.[26]

He viewed the church as an important component of his empire, so he did not tolerate any division or quarrel within the church that may threaten the empire’s unity and stability. From the perspective of politics and governance of empire, this made sense. But it also shows that the Nicene Creed, written some three hundred years into the Christian era, had strayed far from the New Testament, far from the early Jewish church in Jerusalem, and far from the churches that Paul established through his missionary efforts.

As a trinitarian most of my life, I worked very hard to find some New Testament basis for my trinitarian faith, especially for my unwavering belief that Jesus is God. Although the biblical evidence for trinitarianism is truly meager, I tried to make the best of it. In retrospect and in shame, I was unwilling to look at any credible evidence to the contrary, for I had simply assumed that the deity of Christ is beyond dispute. Likewise, the church, which is almost universally trinitarian today, will not look at any evidence in Scripture that is contrary to the doctrine it holds dear. Any scholar who ventures to point out an error in our trinitarian “exegesis” will be ignored and even condemned as a liberal or heretic or infidel destined for hell.

How many of us trinitarians are even remotely aware that the pillar of our faith is Constantine’s Creed? Rev. Dr. J.N.D. Kelly (1909-1997) died some years ago, so it wouldn’t be possible for us to know how he would have explained the term “his creed”. But Kelly was not a biblical scholar, so he might not have reflected on the connection between the Nicene Creed and the New Testament. But this is something that we are obliged to consider if we take the New Testament as God’s Word in which our spiritual lives are rooted and which we consider to be something more than a mere collection of ancient religious documents that scholars study out of academic interest.

The search for the Biblical basis of trinitarianism

It was not until the fourth century of the Christian era that the deity of Jesus gained official recognition through the intervention of Constantine, the officially pagan Roman emperor without whose help it wouldn’t be certain that the trinitarian party in Nicaea could have gained the official deification of Jesus which later culminated in the doctrine of the Trinity. It was only after trinitarianism had been established as the official doctrine of the Roman Empire, especially after A.D. 381, that an effort was made to some degree of earnestness to see what biblical foundations, if any, could be found for this doctrine.

Formal trinitarian doctrine as we know it today did not initially grow out of the Bible, but was the later result of a retrospective search for the biblical evidence for the established doctrine. This undertaking has never been successful as might be expected under the historical circumstances. To this day, trinitarians are still mining the New Testament for whatever evidence they think could be used for proving the deity of Jesus. Every vague statement is pounced upon to serve this purpose. Even the statement, “I and the Father are one” (Jn.10:30), is seized upon as indicating consubstantiality, ignoring the fact that the same spiritual oneness is available to every believer: “But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (1Cor.6:17).

Since trinitarianism is not rooted in the New Testament and did not come from it, but was retroactively imposed on the Bible, it has no biblical validity whatsoever. Therefore, in our study of biblical monotheism and the biblical Jesus, we are not obligated to disprove trinitarianism. Trinitarianism is rightly to be regarded as heretical for it is a creedal system that has, through the actions of its promulgators, swerved from the Bible. All trinitarians should ponder carefully, with fear and trembling, the fact that their doctrine is of Gentile origin, both pagan and Hellenistic, and was developed only after the gospel had been entrenched in the pagan nations in which the Gentiles lived, beginning from more than a century after the time of Christ.

Historical aftermath

The Council of Nicaea under the auspices of Constantine, the de facto head of the church, paved the way for making Nicaean Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire. That official step was taken by Emperor Theodosius I (together with his co-rulers Gratian and Valentinian II) in the Edict of Thessalonica of 380 which declared that the creed of the earlier “First Council of Nicaea” shall be the basis of the Empire’s sole recognized religion. This new edict was to take immediate effect not just in Nicaea or Constantinople but the whole Roman Empire.

But did this bring God’s blessings on the Roman Empire? Almost immediately after the edict was issued in 380, the empire began to fall apart. Theodosius himself was the last emperor to rule over both the western half and the eastern half of the Roman Empire. The Empire has never again been reunited.

The decline was so rapid that in 410, only a generation after the edict, Rome was sacked and pillaged by the Visigoths. Its infrastructure, notably its water conduits and sewage system, was destroyed, and its population was reduced to almost nothing. The great city of a million people was eventually reduced to a town of 10,000 as its inhabitants fled the intolerable conditions created by a shortage of food and water.

Does anyone see the connection between the destruction of Rome and the establishing of the Nicaean doctrine? Christian books generally do not mention this fact, so few Christians know anything about it.

Does the destruction of Rome reveal something of God’s mind? This was the point of no return for the Roman Empire, and it has never since regained its ancient glory. This was the first time in 800 years that Rome had been sacked. Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Empire, became the “new Rome”. The western half of the empire did not survive for long and the glorious empire collapsed. Meanwhile, the eastern part of the Roman Empire, which had shrunk to the region of modern-day Greece and Turkey, continued on until it was conquered by the Ottoman Muslims in 1453, and Constantinople was renamed Istanbul.

For the sack of Rome, see Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, various editions. Gibbon wrote emphatically and in detail that Christianity contributed directly to the fall of Rome, and was criticized by Christians for what he wrote. There is a recent book with a similar title by the American historian James W. Ermatinger which is not a revision of Gibbon’s work. In his work, Ermatinger says that “Christianity in many ways contributed to the fall of the empire” (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, p.39).

We see something similar in the 2007 25th anniversary issue of Christian History and Biography which has a cover story on the fall of Rome and its connection to Christianity. The article says that the Christians in Rome believed that Rome was unconquerable. Coins issued by the Roman Empire, now officially trinitarian, bore the words Invicta Roma Aeterna (“Eternal, Unconquerable Rome”). The article says that a few years before the horrific pillage of Rome in 410 by 40,000 “barbarians,” the Christian poet Prudentius wrote that Rome could not possibly fall because Rome had embraced the Christian faith. He even boasted that “no barbaric enemy shatters my walls with a javelin and no man with strange weapons, attire and hairdress, wanders around the city he has conquered and carries off my young men”. Yet when Rome fell on August 24, 410, the calamity was so violent and ruinous that when the great biblical scholar Jerome heard about it in Bethlehem, “he put aside his Commentary on Ezekiel and sat stupefied in total silence for three days.” [27]

Soon many had come to the conclusion that the destruction of Rome was a divine judgment against Christians, a view that prompted Augustine to write The City of God. It was also widely believed that the fall of Rome was a fulfillment of the prophecy in Revelation 14:8 of the fall of “Babylon”.[28]

The Church’s authority to persecute heretics

Most modern versions of the Nicene Creed omit the fact that the definitive Nicene Creed of 325 contains a closing anathema against those who do not accept the creed: “(the dissenters) are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church” (as translated by Philip Schaff in Creeds of Christendom). The Greek word used here, anathema, is much stronger than the English word condemn, for it implies condemnation to hell as is seen in the three definitions of that word in BDAG: “1. that which is dedicated as a votive offering, a votive offering; 2. that which has been cursed, cursed, accursed; 3. the content that is expressed in a curse, a curse”. We can rule out definition 1 because the Creed would hardly regard the dissenter as a votive offering to God. This leaves only definitions 2 and 3, which means that anyone who disagrees with the Nicene Creed is, by the same creed, condemned to hell.

Similarly the Athanasian Creed closes with a condemnation: “This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved,” as translated by Philip Schaff in Creeds of Christendom. Schaff himself disapproves of the “damnatory clauses” of the Athanasian Creed:

THE DAMNATORY CLAUSES. The Athanasian Creed, in strong contrast with the uncontroversial and peaceful tone of the Apostles’ Creed, begins and ends with the solemn declaration that the catholic faith in the Trinity and the Incarnation herein set forth is the indispensable condition of salvation, and that those who reject it will be lost forever. The same damnatory clause is also wedged in [between the first part and the second part of the Creed]. This threefold anathema … requires everyone who would be saved to believe in the only true and living God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, one in essence, three in persons, and in one Jesus Christ, very God and very Man in one person.

The damnatory clauses, especially when sung or chanted in public worship, grate harshly on modern Protestant ears, and it may well be doubted whether they are consistent with true Christian charity and humility, and whether they do not transcend the legitimate authority of the Church. (Creeds of Christendom, chapter 10, paragraph 3)

Ever since Nicaea, the church has come up with its own definition of what is heresy, and condemns those who do not accept its standard of what a Christian is supposed to believe. In other words, by the fourth century, the church had boldly displaced the Scriptures, arrogating to itself the authority to be the final determinator of what Christians may or may not believe. That is still the case in the Catholic Church today. While the Protestant church in its various denominations accept in principle the Scriptures as the final authority, its doctrinal mindset has long been ensnared in trinitarianism for the reason that its dogmatic foundation is almost entirely derived from that of the Catholic Church out of which the Protestant church emerged. (Luther himself was an Augustinian monk in the Catholic Church.)

The Protestant church broke away from Catholicism essentially on two main points as put forward by Luther: first, the important matter of justification by faith; second, the rejection of the supreme authority of the Pope and his supposed infallibility. But apart from these two points, the rest of Catholic dogma, including the creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople and the other trinitarian councils that followed, was incorporated into Protestantism. As a result there is no fundamental theological difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, a fact that has made it easy for Protestants and even Protestant ministers to convert to Catholicism as so often happens today. It also happens in the reverse direction: Catholics who are not particularly enamored of the Pope would have little difficulty joining Protestant churches.

As for defining what is heresy, the church from the time of Nicaea has considered itself the sole authority on faith, and on who is and who is not a heretic. The Catholic Church declared Luther a heretic and by extension the Protestants who followed him, though in recent years the Catholic Church has taken a more conciliatory tone towards Protestants.

After Nicaea, the now unified Roman state and what it regarded as its church took up a policy of persecution against “heretics”. In an ironic twist of history, the once persecuted Christian church had now become the persecutor of Christians, marking some of them as heretics and pagans. The savagery of Christian persecutors is probably best known from the horrors of the Inquisition with its institutional use of torture, execution, and massacres in the prosecution of “heretics,” but the process started centuries earlier.

When a church or a group of Christians gives itself the right to declare what is heretical and what is orthodox, or who is a heretic and who is not, then all sorts of fearful things can happen that will forever remain on record as a disgrace to the church. Jesus had already warned his followers of this when he said, “A time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God” (John 16:2, NIV).

As for Protestants, one would think that they, having been condemned as heretics themselves, would not be so inclined to condemn others in the same way, but sadly this is not the case. The horrific persecutions of the Anabaptists beginning from the time of the Reformation will forever be a stain on the church.

Tens of thousands of Anabaptists were killed by Catholics and Protestants, the latter in parallel with the scorching denunciation of the Anabaptists by Luther, Zwingli and Calvin (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., p.55). This is consistent with the estimate, given by several sources, of 50,000 Anabaptists killed by the year 1535. Some of the better known Anabaptist victims were Jacob Hutter (burned at the stake in Innsbruck), Hans Hut (tortured shortly before he died in Augsburg), and the theologian Balthasar Hubmaier (tortured and burned alive in Vienna; three days later, his wife was drowned in the Danube with a stone tied around her neck).[29]

Protestants who know of these atrocities (e.g. those who teach church history in Bible institutions) would understandably not want to speak of them, so the average Christian doesn’t know anything about these shameful events. Calvin’s active role in the condemnation and the burning at the stake of Michael Servetus is another well documented historical event that few Christians, even Calvinists, know about.[30]

The arrogating to oneself the right to determine who is and who is not a heretic goes on today. But because the church no longer has the power of the state, it can no longer persecute its opponents or dissenters through physical measures, but there remains a weapon of choice: slander and defamation. This is done even through the Internet to carry out shameless smear campaigns against the targeted churches or church leaders. These slanderers are often the same people who claim to accept the authority of the Scriptures, yet are blind to the severe condemnation of the sin of slander in these same Scriptures. This is the extent to which many in the church have fallen into yet another sin: hypocrisy, which Jesus condemned in Matthew 23. These are the same people who are deaf to Jesus’ warning, “Judge not” (Mt.7:1).

The point we need to emphasize here, if there is to be any hope for the future of the church, is that the church urgently needs to see that it has fallen into error and hypocrisy, and is in desperate need of having its eyes opened to these realities so as to be able to repent for the sake of its own salvation. The fact is that the church has lost its credibility, and is viewed by the world as little more than a social or religious institution of little, if any, relevance in the modern age.

The shift from holy living to doctrinal assent

A grave departure from New Testament practice with serious consequences for the spiritual life of the church is that from Nicaea onward, becoming a Christian is largely viewed as a matter of assent to, or acceptance of a creed. The Nicene Creed of 325 explicitly says that salvation is conditional upon accepting its doctrinal clauses. This is incongruous with the New Testament mission of going out into the world to make disciples (Mt.28:19), not creedal compatriots.

The “believism” that is standard in the church today involves little more than the acceptance of a church creed, usually based on the Nicene Creed, but without requiring any radical change in one’s spiritual life. This is sadly the kind of “faith” that has been the norm in the church from the 4th century to the present day. It is not hard to foresee the negative impact that believism will have on the moral life of the church. The conduct of many Christians is not up to the standard of the decent non-Christian. The sins of church leaders are reported all too often in newspaper headlines. Fundraising is the main activity of many churches today. What credibility does the church have in the world? Until we are liberated from this creedal concept of faith, and heed the New Testament call to become new people in Christ, there will be no hope whatsoever for the church.



[1] The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day, vol.1, p.58.

[2] Hippolytus in Refutatio omnium haeresium 7:22. See the scholarly Wikipedia article “Homoousian” cited in Appendix 7 of the present book (The Gnostic Origins of Homoousios).

[3] Klaus Klostemaier, A Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, p.124; Klaus Klostemaier, A Survey of Hinduism, p.487; Steven Rosen, Essential Hinduism, p.193; Sri Swami Sivananda, All About Hinduism, p.134.

[4] Richard Caldwell, The Origin of the Gods, Oxford, p.137.

[5] Jean-Marc Narbonne, Plotinus in Dialogue with the Gnostics, p.39; and Sean Martin, The Gnostics, p.38.

[6] For a history of this protracted conflict, see Philip Jenkin’s Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years; and Richard Rubenstein’s How Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome.

[7] Constantine and the Christian Empire, p.261.

[8] The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed differs slightly in its various forms as adopted by the Lutheran Church, the Catholic Church (from the Latin Rite), the Orthodox churches, the Coptic Orthodox Church, and the Anglican Communion. Some of the differences between their versions of the Nicene Creed carry overtones of early theological disputes, e.g. “and from the Son” appears in some versions but not in others.

[9] Eusebius, Life of Constantine, A. Cameron and Stuart Hall (Oxford), p.41.

[10] “The first Council of Nicaea was summoned in 325 CE by Constantine within seven months of the victory that installed him as sole ruler of the empire.” (Cambridge History of Christianity: Origins to Constantine, vol.1, p.552).

[11] Hans Küng: “But it was the emperor who had the say at the council; the bishop of Rome was not even invited. The emperor convened the imperial synod; he guided it through a bishop whom he appointed and through imperial commissars; he made the resolutions of the council state laws by endorsing them.” (The Catholic Church: A Short History, p.36)

[12] Constantine “was also credited with the successful homoousios formula agreed at Nicaea” (The Cambridge History of Christianity: Origins to Constantine, vol.1, p.548). Hans Küng: “Constantine himself had the unbiblical word ‘of the same substance’ (Greek homoousios, Latin consubstantialis) inserted; later it was to cause a great controversy” (The Catholic Church: A Short History, p.37). “Constantine, urged by his Spanish adviser, even threw in a phrase of his own: the Son is homoousios with the Father … The moderate majority were uneasy” (Stephen Tomkins, Short History of Christianity, p.49). Jaroslav Pelikan: “As Constantine had proposed the homoousios in 325, so his son Constantius intervened on the opposite side with the ruling: ‘I do not want words used that are not in Scripture.’” (The Christian Tradition, vol.1, pp.209-210)

[13] J.N.D. Kelly (Early Christian Doctrines, p.237) refers to the “ancient tradition that it was Ossius who suggested ὁμοούσιος [homoousios] to Constantine”.

[14] Constantine and the Christian Empire, pp.112-113.

[15] Ibid., p.197.

[16] The thoroughly pagan nature of the office of Pontifex Maximus can be seen in the detailed and scholarly Wikipedia article of the same name.

[17] “In the final irony, the emperor’s deathbed baptism would be performed by an Arian, the same Eusebius of Nicomedia whose interests Constantine had protected in 325” (Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine, p.130). Constantine was baptized on Easter 337 by the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, and died on May 22, the day of Pentecost, while preparing a campaign against Persia (Eusebius: Life of Constantine, p.49).

[18] Eusebius: Life of Constantine (p.44) says “doubts have been expressed about the genuineness of Constantine’s Christianity,” notably by Jakob Burckhardt in The Age of Constantine the Great, Alistair Kee in Constantine Versus Christ, and Eduard Schwartz in Charakterköpfe aus der Antiken Literatur: Vorträge.

[19] Hans Küng: “This creed became the law of the church and the empire—everything was now increasingly dominated by the slogan ‘One God, one emperor, one empire, one church, one faith’” (The Catholic Church: A Short History, p.37).

[20] That the Nicene Creed is binding on all bishops in Christendom and by extension all Christians, is seen in many historical observations such as the one in the previous footnote, but also the following statement: “It was Constantine himself who summoned over 200 bishops to attend the Council of Nicaea in Bythinia in Asia Minor in May 325. Because of its size and because it was the first Church council to set out a creed to be assented to by all bishops, the Council of Nicaea was eventually to be accepted as the first general or ecumenical council of the Church, its authority in theory binding on all Christians.” Jesus Now and Then, Burridge and Gould, p.172.

[21] That is, the combination of Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles viewed as one composition written by the same person, Luke, to a certain Theophilus.

[22] Both statements by Küng are from The Catholic Church: A Short History, p.37.

[23] The Parting of the Ways: Between Christianity and Judaism and their Significance for the Character of Christianity, 2nd ed., J.D.G. Dunn, SCM Press, 2006.

[24] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, says that Constantine was willing to tolerate the different Christian groups “on condition that they acquiesced in his creed” (p.237), and that “while the emperor was alive, his creed was sacrosanct” (p.238). Emphasis added.

[25] J.N.D. Kelly: “Whatever the theology of the council was, Constantine’s own overriding motive was to secure the widest possible measure of agreement. For this reason he was not prepared to bar the door to anyone who was willing to append his signature to the creed. There is thus a sense in which it is unrealistic to speak of the theology of the council.” (Early Christian Doctrines, p.237)

[26] As put bluntly by a popular-level history: “Constantine probably didn’t care whether Jesus was God. He did, however, care about a united Empire.” (Timothy Paul Jones, Christian History Made Easy, p.39).

[27] In episode 3 of the BBC documentary series, History of Christianity, the narrator, a professor of church history at Oxford, says: “The greatest empire which the West had ever known seemed to be tottering into ruin. From the beginning of the 4th century, the Roman Empire was Christian. But then the Christian God seemed to have given up on it. In the West, barbarians overran it. In 410, they seized Rome itself.” The sentence in italics brings out the somber tone of its narrator, Diarmaid MacCulloch, known for his Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, a work that won the 2010 Cundill Prize in History.

[28] There are six references to Babylon in Revelation. Thayer’s Greek-English lexicon, on Babulōn, says, “allegorically, of Rome as the most corrupt seat of idolatry and the enemy of Christianity: Rev. 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2,10,21.” The ISBE article “Babylon in the NT” says that “most scholars hold that Rome was the city that was meant”. To the believers in John’s day, a prophecy regarding literal Babylon would have little meaning because Israel was under the Roman Empire and was not threatened by Babylon. John himself was a prisoner of Rome, not Babylon, on the island of Patmos (Rev. 1:9). If John had intended “Babylon” to be a reference to Rome, as is probably the case, then his teaching about Babylon would be significant.

[29] In Utrecht, sisters-in-law Maria and Ursula van Beckum were burned at the stake; they were tied to the stakes loosely so that onlookers could see them flinch reflexively when they were set on fire. Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers, Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht (eds.), pp.352-356, Wilfred Laurier University Press, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, 1996.

[30] On of the trial and execution of Michael Servetus over doctrine, see Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus, 1511-1553, Roland H. Bainton, professor of ecclesiastical history at Yale; and Out of the Flames, by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone.

 

 

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