If you believe the doctrine was taught in the church from the beginning what is your proof?
I’ve been hearing a lot of people lately who are knowledgeable about church history saying that the doctrine of the Trinity was what the early church believed and that the Council of Nicea in 325 AD just codified for the first time what the church had always believed. I’ve also heard it put this way: The history of Christian theology is viewed as a long struggle to find adequate language for what the New Testament had already been understood to teach and had always been believed by faithful Christians. The idea is that somehow early Christians managed to be Trinitarian though their teachers could not find adequate language to express this truth which was finally well expressed only in the 300’s after the terminology was invented in the 200’s.
Some Trinitarians, but by no means all Trinitarians, would have us believe that the early church was Trinitarian in their understanding of God, long before the doctrine was developed by the church. As you can see, I disagree, and I’m throwing in the red flag to protest that call.
They Could Have Just Come Right Out and Said God is 3
The vocabulary for the doctrine of the trinity had not been invented until about 200 AD by Tertullian, who interestingly enough is considered a heretic for some of his other doctrines. Not only was he the first person in the history of the church to use the term “trinity”, he was the first person to put the number 3 and the word “God” together in a statement about God, saying that “God is 3.” Sure, someone MIGHT have been able to conceptualize a triune God, at least in his mind and in pictures, without the terms “trinity” or “triune”, but if that is how Jesus and his apostles thought of God, why didn’t they teach that doctrine, especially if it’s such a foundational and vitally important Christian doctrine, as it is usually considered? They did at least have the number 3 in their Greek and Hebrew languages. They could have just said, “God is a 3 person being,” if that’s what they believed and would have saved us a lot of guessing, but they never said anything like it, while they did say God is one, several times. The fact they never came right out and said “God is 3” in so many words means one of two things: that’s not what they believed, or if they did, it wasn’t important enough to be stated in any of the Gospels, the epistles, or the Old Testament, and therefore doesn’t qualify as a foundational doctrine of the Christian church.
There Are No Exclusively Trinitarian Statements in the Bible
I’ve been trying to find the first well-regarded person in church history that unequivocally conceived of Jesus (but not necessarily the Holy Spirit) according to the doctrine of the Trinity. For a long time I thought it was Justin Martyr around 150 AD. (I think it would have been cool if he had spelled his name with even more y’s, Jystyn Myrtyr, just like Lynyrd Skynyrd did.) But recently I’ve been wondering if he wasn’t an Arian who believed in Jesus being a separate pre-incarnate being of lesser godness than the Father. At any rate, I feel confident you will not find anyone prior to Justin Martyr who made statements about God that couldn’t also be made by either a Unitarian, a Modalist, an Adoptionist, a Subordinationist, an Arian, and sometimes by all five. You might be tempted to quote me something written by the apostle Paul or some other author in the bible to show me they were Trinitarians but the problem is EVERY scripture in the bible you might want to quote is also used by either Unitarians, Modalists, Adoptionists, Subortionists, or Arians, sometimes by all five, to teach something other than the doctrine of the Trinity. You cannot find a single scripture used by Trinitarians, exclusively, so you cannot find distinctly Trinitarian theology in the bible.
Can You Find Me One Trinitarian? Just One?
On several other online media I have asked for people to find me one person, writing prior to Justin Martyr in 150 AD, who wrote something that could only be written by a Trinitarian, thus proving that at least ONE PERSON in the early church was a Trinitarian. I am confident enough that you won’t be able to find one that I am offering a one hundred dollar bill, freshly printed – by the US government, no less – to the first person who does. In the past I have issued a challenge like this and people have cut and pasted from some article without looking at the dates of the quotes. Most of them come from the 4th Century. That may be considered “early church” by many, but it is not the earliest church and doesn’t really count. The issue here is establishing an unbroken line of Trinitarians from Jesus in the 1st Century to the Council of Nicaea in the 4th Century. It can’t be done, and Trinitarians tacitly admit as such when they recognize that the doctrine wasn’t codified (written down) until Nicaea.
Some will admit that the doctrine of the Trinity was not formulated until the 4th Century, including many Catholic and Protestant scholars, but will also say that the doctrine was present in the apostolic church in rudimentary form. All of the statements were there, they just had to be put together in such a way as to construct the doctrine. OK, fine, but the doctrines of Unitarianism, Modalism, Adoptionism, Subordinationism, and Arianism were also there in rudimentary form, so that does not solve a thing. It’s just looking at earlier statements in the bible through later interpretations. Eisegesis instead of exegesis, in other words.
If the doctrine of the Trinity is what the church had always believed from day one, what can you produce to demonstrate this is the case? I have $100 for the first person to come up with something to show that at least somebody was a Trinitarian prior to Justin Martyr, even though that wouldn’t demonstrate that the whole church was Trinitarian unless that person spoke for the whole church. That, as you may know, has never happened since the original authors of the bible. Nobody since that time, including any church council, has ever had the authority or the universal recognition to speak on behalf of the whole Christian church. Even if you are Catholic and believe your Magisterium does have the authority to speak for the whole church, you will not find any popes or councils who actually did speak for the whole church, except for at the Council of Jerusalem in the book of Acts. Unless you dismiss the numerous councils who disagree with your later conclusions as heterodox (not conforming to your perceived orthodoxy), and dismiss the legitimacy of the Eastern church which didn’t submit to your Bishops of Rome (aka the Popes), which is exactly how your Roman (Western) Catholic Church deals with their disagreements.
If I am correct in what I am saying then that raises another question: what were Jesus and his apostles if they were not Trinitarians? That is a subject for another post, but as for the church leaders who came soon after the New Testament scriptures were penned, they were all over the map, literally and theologically. There were no unified, church-wide “isms” that developed after the Apostolic Age. Every “ism” that existed was developed in some corner of Christendom and then later sanctioned by the Church at Rome, or one of the other Holy Sees, which of course have never been united on much of anything.
If you say the doctrine of the Trinity developed over the course of several hundred years that would be an honest admission. If you believe the doctrine was taught in the church from the beginning what is your proof? Why would you even believe such a thing?
According to The Encyclopedia of Religion:
“Theologians today are in agreement that the Hebrew Bible does not contain a doctrine of the Trinity. In the immediate post New Testament period of the Apostolic Fathers no attempt was made to work out the God-Christ (Father-Son) relationship in ontological terms.”
In other words, nobody was talking about Jesus as “a member of a godhead” and trying to figure out or explain just what that meant. Nobody was trying to solve the “mystery” of how you can have three (or even two) persons who are each “fully God” and yet not have three Gods, because nobody in the early church considered Jesus to be “fully God” or considered the Holy Spirit to be a separate person from the Father. By the 4th Century, however, everybody was talking about it.
According to The New Catholic Encyclopedia:
“The formulation ‘one God in three Persons’ was not solidly established, certainly not fully assimilated into Christian life and its profession of faith, prior to the end of the 4th century. But it is precisely this formulation that has first claim to the title THE TRINITARIAN DOGMA. Among the Apostolic Fathers, there had been nothing even remotely approaching such a mentality or perspective.” 1
The Apostolic Fathers are those who followed immediately after the apostles and some had the apostles as their teachers.
I don’t always agree with the Catholic Church, but when I do, it’s because they have done their homework and have interpreted church history correctly.
Where’s The Scandal?
In the beginning the church was not considered anything other than another Jewish sect, this one following the teachings of their Rabbi Jesus Christ. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, “Judaism has always been rigorously Unitarian,” so unless Jesus and his Apostles made a concerted effort to change Jewish thinking about God this Jewish sect would remain as Unitarian as the Jews in it were before. Trying to change this mindset would no doubt be as tumultuous as trying to change Jewish thinking about the necessity of circumcision for Gentile followers of Christ or as tumultuous as changing their thinking about what their Messiah would do for them, Jesus Christ being quite a disappointment for the Jews who expected their Messiah to lead them on a march against Rome.
Can you imagine faithful Jews who had twice daily all their lives prayed the Shema which is “Hear o Israel: the Lord they God is one,” all of a sudden replacing in their minds the “one” with a “three in one” so while they still recited, “the Lord thy God is one,” they were thinking, “the Lord thy God is three in one”? How likely is that? To quote the eminent theologian Vizzini in Princess Bride, that is “inconceivable!”
There is not one shred of evidence that there was any such controversy in the apostolic or immediate post-apostolic church, yet many Christians believe the Jewish founders of Christianity, including Jesus himself, were Trinitarian, and preached and wrote as if they were, with not even a hint of controversy arising among their fellow Jewish Christians, because this new revelation had been thoroughly accepted by all involved.
If you are one who has believed this, I hope after giving it some thought you conclude as I do that such a view of what happened back then is not only inconceivable but preposterous, and agree with scholars, both Trinitarian and non-Trinitarian, that a doctrine of the Trinity, if it had been taught in the early church, would have caused a monumental scandal, and agree that it wasn’t until 300 years later that this doctrine became part of Christian thinking as a counter to another scandal known as Arianism.
The Christianity of Jesus and his Jewish apostles was as Unitarian as the Jews were prior to Christ and I feel quite assured that no one will produce any evidence to the contrary so I can keep my one hundred dollars. Or better yet, invest it in Bitcoin.
History is Subject to Interpretation
Since we are on the subject of interpreting history I should add a few words about that. The statements made by theologians in antiquity are just as much subject to interpretation as the scriptures themselves, if not more so. We have to be able to understand what they meant by the words they used just as much as we need to understand the meanings of words used in our Bibles. This should be obvious but then more than one time someone has told me, “So-and-so in the early 2nd century said Jesus is God. So the early church thought he was God!”
The problem, for the one saying this at least, is that the Apostolic Father who said this wrote in Greek, using the Greek word theos. The definition of theos includes “human representatives of God.” So that Apostolic Father was probably saying the same thing as the Apostles who said Jesus is theos, which is saying Jesus is a human representative of God.
Another point about interpreting history: the Church Fathers didn’t speak with one voice about anything. They also did not represent the church of their time. They represented only themselves. It took time, decades or even centuries, for the church as a whole to adopt novel ideas.
Even though they claimed to defend orthodoxy at times they were all innovators and came up with novel ideas in order to counter what they thought was heresy, or to advance their own political agendas. Where the church lauds them as defenders of orthodoxy in one place she castigates them as heretics in another.
So, take them all with a grain of salt. At best, they give us an imperfect window into the development of doctrine in their day, made all the more difficult when works are burned and all we have left is what their enemies said about them.
I certainly do not take the writings of ANYONE in the 4th century to accurately portray what was believed in the 1st century. How is that even possible? For one thing, there was no established canon of scripture. There was no mutually agreed upon script from which to derive the doctrines. Everyone worked off of a different script. The bishops and theologians were free to draw from any source that pleased them. Just as did the writers of the bible. There are many references in the New Testament to writings that are not in the Old Testament. Jesus even referenced a Jewish fable in the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.
That said, I do give a lot of weight to the Apostolic Fathers who immediately followed the Apostles. They do serve as a bridge between the Apostles and those who came after. What’s even more instructive than what they said is what they didn’t say. One would expect, for example, if the Apostles were Trinitarian the Apostolic Fathers would write what they wrote as if they were Trinitarian, even if they didn’t provide any direct teaching regarding the subject. The scholars, including Catholic scholars tasked with defending the orthodoxy of the Doctrine of the Trinity, all recognize that nobody was Trinitarian among the Apostles and Apostolic Fathers. That’s why they didn’t write what they wrote as if they were.
Many Christians, including ones that have a vested interest in defending the doctrine of the Trinity such as the Catholic Church understand that the doctrine of the Trinity is a teaching of the church, but is not a teaching of the Bible. Yet this myth that Jesus and his apostles were Trinitarian persists within Christianity, even among people who have seminary educations. If you are part of that number, I’m sorry I can not make you $100 richer, but I can leave you with more scholarly sources which have compiled the work of numerous other scholarly sources which agree with the conclusions of the Catholic Church and the Encyclopedia of Religion. Please ask yourself, “These knowledgeable people do not see the doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible. Why do I?”
The New Encyclopedia Britannica: “Neither the word Trinity nor the explicit doctrine appears in the New Testament, nor did Jesus and his followers intend to contradict the Shema in the Old Testament: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord’ (Deuteronomy 6:4). …The doctrine developed gradually over several centuries and through many controversies. …It was not until the 4th century that the distinctness of the three and their unity were brought together in a single orthodox doctrine of one essence and three persons. …By the end of the 4th century … the doctrine of the Trinity took substantially the form it has maintained ever since.” 2
The Encyclopedia Americana: “Christianity derived from Judaism and Judaism was strictly Unitarian [believing that God is one person]. The road which led from Jerusalem to Nicea was scarcely a straight one. Fourth century Trinitarianism did not reflect accurately early Christian teaching regarding the nature of God; it was, on the contrary, a deviation from this teaching.” 3
The Columbia Encyclopedia: “Trinity … the doctrine is not explicitly taught in the New Testament.” 4
Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics: “In the New Testament we do not find the doctrine of the Trinity in anything like its developed form, not even in the Pauline and Johannine theology.”
Encyclopedia International: “The doctrine of the Trinity did not form part of the apostles’ preaching, as this is reported in the New Testament.”
New Bible Dictionary: “The word Trinity is not found in the Bible, and, though used by Tertullian in the last decade of the 2nd Century, it did not find a place formally in the theology of the Church till the 4th century.”
Dictionary of the Bible: “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.”
New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology: “The NT does not contain the developed doctrine of the Trinity … primitive Christianity did not have an explicit doctrine of the Trinity such as was subsequently elaborated in the creeds of the early church.”
The Oxford Companion to the Bible: “Because the Trinity is such an important part of later Christian doctrine, it is striking that the term does not appear in the New Testament. Likewise, the developed concept of three coequal partners in the Godhead found in later creedal formulations cannot be clearly detected within the confines of the canon… While the New Testament writers say a great deal about God, Jesus and the Spirit of each, no New testament writer expounds on the relationship among the three in the detail that later Christian writers do.”
Some may be wondering about certain early church fathers who have writings that may at first blush appear to be Trinitarian. Atlanta Bible College professor Sean Finnegan explains in this video The Trinity Before Nicaea why they aren’t.