includes all Christian belief systems
that reject as non-scriptural, wholly or partly, the doctrine of the Trinity
; the doctrine
, the God of the Bible, is three distinct, co-eternal persons in one being, and that these three persons are co-eternal and equal in nature, authority and knowledge.
The absence of the Trinity is not of necessary importance to all nontrinitarians. Persons and groups espousing this position generally do not refer to themselves affirmatively by the term. The Unitarians have adopted a name that speaks of their belief in God as subsisting in a theological or cosmic unity. Modern nontrinitarian views differ widely on the nature of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
Various nontrinitarian views existed from the time of Jesus, such as adoptionism and Arianism, which existed prior to the formal definition of the Trinity as doctrine in AD 325. Nontrinitarianism was later renewed in the Gnosticism of the Cathars in the 11th through 13th centuries, in the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century, and in Restorationism during the 19th century.
All nontrinitarians take the position that the doctrine of the earliest form of Christianity (see Apostolic Age
) was not Trinitarian. Typically, nontrinitarians explain that Christianity was altered as a direct and indirect consequence of the edicts of Constantine the Great
, which resulted in the eventual adoption of Trinitarian Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Because it was at this time of a dramatic shift in Christianity's status
that the doctrine of the Trinity attained its definitive development, nontrinitarians typically find the doctrine questionable. It is in this light that the Nicene Creed is seen by nontrinitarians as an essentially political document, resulting from the subordination of true doctrine to State interests by the leaders of Catholic Church, so that the church became, in their view, an extension of the Roman Empire.
Although Nontrinitarian beliefs continued to multiply, and among some people (such as the Lombards in the West) it was dominant for hundreds of years afterward, the Trinitarians gained the immense power of the Roman Empire. Nontrinitarians typically argue that the primitive beliefs of the Christianity were systematically suppressed (often to the point of death), and that the historical record, perhaps also including the Scriptures of the New Testament, was altered as a consequence.
Nontrinitarian followers of Jesus fall into roughly four different groups.
- Some believe that Jesus is not God, instead believing that he was a messenger from God, or Prophet, or the perfect created human. This view was espoused by ancient sects such as the Ebionites. A specific form of Nontrinitarianism is Arianism, which had become the dominant view in some regions in the time of the Roman Empire. Arianism taught the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but held that the Son was not co-eternal with the Father. However, Arians did not consider worship of Jesus as wrong. Another early form of Nontrinarianism was Monarchianism.
- Others believe that the one God who revealed himself in the Old Testament as Jehovah revealed himself in his Son, Jesus Christ. This is a doctrine known originally as Sabellianism or modalism, although it is explained somewhat differently in the churches which hold these beliefs today. Examples of such churches today are Oneness Pentecostals and the New Church.
- Most denominations of the Latter Day Saint movement (including the largest, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) accept the divinity of Jesus, and believe the three persons of the Trinity to be separate. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints specifically holds that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three separate and distinct individuals but can and do act together in perfect unity of purpose as a single monotheistic entity (the "Godhead") for the common purpose of saving mankind, Jesus Christ having received divine investiture of authority from Heavenly Father in the pre-mortal existence.
- Some denominations within the Sabbatarian Church of God tradition accept the divinity of the Father and Jesus the Son, but do not teach that the Holy Spirit is a Being. The Living Church of God, for example, teaches, "The Holy Spirit is the very essence, the mind, life and power of God. It is not a Being. The Spirit is inherent in the Father and the Son, and emanates from Them throughout the entire universe". This view has historically been termed Semi-Arianism or Binitarianism.
According to The Outline of History by H.G. Wells: "We shall see presently how later on all Christendom was torn by disputes about the Trinity. There is no evidence that the apostles of Jesus ever heard of the Trinity at any rate from him."
Nontrinitarians claim the roots of their position go back farther than those of their counterpart Trinitarians. The biblical basis for each side of the issue is debated chiefly on the question of the divinity of Jesus. Nontrinitarians note that in deference to God, Jesus rejected even being called "good", that he disavowed omniscience as the Son, and that he referred to ascending unto "my Father, and to your Father; and to my God, and to your God", and that he said "the Father is the only true God." Additionally, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:4 when saying in Mark 12:29 "The most important one (commandment)," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one."
Siding with nontrinitarians, scholars investigating the historical Jesus often assert that Jesus taught neither his own equality with God nor the Trinity (see, for example, the Jesus Seminar).
The text of the Nicene Creed state that the three are "coequal"; this is the term actually used in the doctrine. One might consider co-owners of a business as being equal owners but with different roles to play in operating the business. Nontrinitarians point to a very important statement by Jesus that contradicts the use of the term equal or "coequal". It is a simple passage where Jesus stated his explicit subordinance to the Father: "for my Father is Greater than I(John 14:28)."
In addition, the Nicene Creed was established approximately 300 years after the time of Christ on Earth as a result of conflict within the early Christianity. Nontrinitarians also note that the Bible forewarned the reader to beware the doctrines of men (e.g. Mat. 15:9; Eph. 4:14).
Points of dissent
Trinitarians say that "the doctrine of the Trinity is [...] a deep mystery that cannot be fathomed by the finite mind. Criticism of the trinitarian doctrine includes the argument that its "mystery" is essentially an inherent irrationality, where the persons of God are claimed to share completely a single divine substance, the "being of God", and yet not partake of each others' identity. Nontrinitarians claim that the perplexity of the Trinitarian arguments, which has included the use of philosophy, is contrary to the Biblical principles of simplicity and clarity in doctrine.
Critics also argue the doctrine, for a teaching described as fundamental, lacks direct scriptural support, and even some proponents of the doctrine acknowledge such direct or formal support is lacking. The New Catholic Encyclopedia, for example, says, "The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not taught [explicitly] in the [Old Testament]", "The formulation 'one God in three Persons' was not solidly established [by a council]...prior to the end of the 4th century". Similarly, Encyclopedia Encarta
states: "The doctrine is not taught explicitly in the New Testament, where the word God almost invariably refers to the Father. [...] The term trinitas
was first used in the 2nd century, by the Latin theologian Tertullian, but the concept was developed in the course of the debates on the nature of Christ [...]. In the 4th century, the doctrine was finally formulated. Encyclopedia Britannica
also says: 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. [...] by the end of the 4th century, under the leadership of Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus (the Cappadocian Fathers), the doctrine of the Trinity took substantially the form it has maintained ever since. The Anchor Bible Dictionary
admits: "One does not find in the NT the trinitarian paradox of the coexistence of the Father, Son, and Spirit within a divine unity. The question, however, of why such a supposedly central doctrine to the Christian faith would never have been explicitly stated in scripture or taught in detail by Jesus himself was sufficiently important to 16th century historical figures such as Michael Servetus
as to lead them to argue the question. The Geneva City Council, in accord with the judgment of the cantons of Zürich, Bern, Basel, and Schaffhausen, condemned Servetus to be burned at the stake for this, and for his opposition to infant baptism.
Divinity of Jesus
For some, debate over the biblical basis of the doctrine tends to revolve chiefly over the question of the deity of Jesus (see Christology). Those who reject the divinity of Jesus argue among other things that Jesus rejected being called so little as good in deference to God, in the story of the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-18; Matthew 19:16-17; Luke 18:18-19), disavowed omniscience as the Son, "learned obedience" (Hebrews 5:8), and referred to ascending unto "my Father, and to your Father; and to my God, and to your God" (John 20:17). They also dispute that "Elohim" denotes plurality, noting that this name in nearly all circumstances takes a singular verb and arguing that where it seems to suggest plurality, Hebrew grammar still indicates against it. They also point to statements by Jesus such as his declaration that the Father was greater than he or that he was not omniscient, in his statement that of a final day and hour not even he knew, but the Father (Mark 13:32), and to Jesus' being called the firstborn of creation (Colossians 1:15) and 'the beginning of God's creation,' (Revelation 3:14) which argues against his being eternal. In Theological Studies #26 (1965) p.545-73, Does the NT call Jesus God?, Raymond E. Brown wrote that Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19, Matthew 19:17, Mark 15:34, Matthew 27:46, John 20:17, Ephesians 1:17, 2 Corinthians 1:3, 1 Peter 1:3, John 17:3, 1 Corinthians 8:6, Ephesians 4:4-6, 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, 2 Corinthians 13:14, 1 Timothy 2:5, John 14:28, Mark 13:32, Philippians 2:5-10, 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 are "texts that seem to imply that the title God was not used for Jesus" and are "negative evidence which is often somewhat neglected in Catholic treatments of the subject."
The Iglesia ni Cristo, citing a catholic book entitled Ang Kabanalbanalang Isangtatlo(Sevilla, Pedro S.J., Ateneo De Manila University, 1988) which categorically states that Jesus Himself did not say He is God, notes that even catholic priest know and believe that this teaching is not biblical .
Trinitarians, and some non-Trinitarians such as the Modalists who also hold to the divinity of Jesus Christ, claim that these statements are based on the fact that Jesus existed as the Son of God in human flesh. Thus he is both God and man, who became "lower than the angels, for our sake" (Hebrews 2:6-8, Psalm 8:4-6) and who was tempted as humans are tempted, but did not sin (Hebrews 4:14-16).
Some Nontrinitarians counter the belief that the Son was limited only during his earthly life (Trinitarians believe, instead, that Christ retains full human nature even after his resurrection), by citing 1 Corinthians 11:3 ("the head of Christ [is] God" [KJV]), written after Jesus had returned to Heaven, thus placing him still in an inferior relation to the Father. Additionally, they refer to Acts 5:31 and Philippians 2:9, indicating that Jesus became exalted after ascension to Heaven, and to Hebrews 9:24, Acts 7:55, 1 Corinthians 15:24, 28, regarding Jesus as a distinct personality in Heaven, all after his ascension.
Christian Unitarians, Restorationists, and others question the doctrine of the Trinity because it relies on non-Biblical terminology. The term "Trinity" is not found in scripture and the number three is never associated with God in any sense other than within the Comma Johanneum
. Detractors hold that the only number ascribed to God in the Bible is One and that the Trinity, literally meaning three-in-one, ascribes a threeness to God that is not Biblical.
Several other examples of terms not found in the Bible include multiple “Persons” in relation to God, the terms “God the Son” and “God the Holy Spirit”, and “eternally” begotten. For instance, a basic tenet of Trinitarianism is that God is made up of three distinct Persons (hypostasis). The term hypostasis is used only one time Biblically in reference to God where it states that Jesus is the express image of God's person (hypostasis). The Bible never uses the term in relation to the Holy Spirit nor explicitly mentions the Son having a distinct hypostasis from the Father.
As regards the major term homoousios (of the same essence), which was introduced into the Creed at the First Council of Nicea, Pier Franco Beatrice has stated: "The main thesis of this paper is that homoousios came straight from Constantine's Hermetic background. [...] The Plato recalled by Constantine is just a name used to cover precisely the Egyptian and Hermetic theology of the "consubstantiality" of the Logos-Son with the Nous-Father, having recourse to a traditional apologetic argument. […] Constantine's Hermetic interpretation of Plato's theology and consequently the emperor's decision to insert homoousios in the Creed of Nicaea.
Trinitarians maintain that these ideas are implied within scripture and were necessary additions of the Nicene Era to counter the doctrine of Arianism.
It is also argued that the vast majority of scriptures that Trinitarians offer in support of their beliefs refer to the Father and to Jesus, but not to the Holy Spirit. This suggests that the concept of the trinity was not well-established in the early Christian community.
The teaching is also pivotal to inter-religious disagreements with two of the other major faiths, Judaism
; the former rejects Jesus' divine mission entirely, the latter accepts Jesus as a human prophet, and as the Messiah. They also believe in the holy spirit. Many within Judaism and Islam also accuse Christian Trinitarians of practicing polytheism
, of believing in three gods rather than just one.
Scriptures cited as being in opposition to the Trinity
Among Bible verses cited by opponents of Trinitarianism are those that claim there is only one God, the Father. Other verses state that Jesus Christ was a man. Although Trinitarians explain these apparent contradictions by reference to the mystery and paradox of the Trinity itself, some nontrinitarians argue that there is little, if any, Biblical basis for the Trinity. This is a partial list of verses implying opposition to Trinitarianism:
- : "Jesus said to him, 'Away from me, Satan! For it is written: "Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only."'"
- : "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent."
- : "For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many "gods" and many "lords"), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live."
- : "For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus"
- : "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder."
Son and Father
- :"No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."
- : "You heard me say, 'I am going away and I am coming back to you.' If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I."
- : "My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."
- : "Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"
- : "But he (Stephen), being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God."
- : "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation."
- : "Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he "has put everything under his feet." Now when it says that "everything" has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all."
Revelation 3:14 (English Standard Version)
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.
To the Church in Laodicea 14 "And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: 'The words of the(A) Amen,(B) the faithful and true witness,(C) the beginning of God’s creation.
Revelation 3:14 : 2 Cor 1:20
Revelation 3:14 : Revelation 3:7; Revelation 1:5; 19:11; 22:6
Revelation 3:14 : Col 1:15, 18; Revelation 21:6; 22:13; Prov 8:22
- : I saw in the night visions, and, behold, [one] like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.
- : Jehovah saith unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, Until I make thine enemies thy footstool.
- : But when the people of Israel cried to the LORD, the LORD raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud, the son of Gera. The same Hebrew word is used both to translate "savior" and "deliverer". If God is the only true savior, as is Jesus, according to the Trinity doctrine, then the term "savior" or "deliverer" could not apply to anyone else. Yet, the Hebrew Scriptures show otherwise.
- "And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another comforter, that he may abide with you forever; even the spirit of truth."
- "I say unto you, the servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than He that sent him.
- Jesus prays to God.
- Jesus has faith in God.
- Jesus is a servant of God.
- Jesus does not know things God knows.
- Jesus worships God.
- Jesus has one who is God to him.
- Jesus is in subjection to God.
- Jesus' head is God.
- Jesus has reverent submission, fear, of God.
- Jesus is given lordship by God.
- Jesus is exalted by God.
- Jesus is made high priest by God.
- Jesus is given authority by God.
- Jesus is given kingship by God.
- Jesus is given judgment by God.
- , , "God raised [Jesus] from the dead".
- , , , Jesus is at the right hand of God.
- Jesus is the one human mediator between the one God and man.
- God put everything, except Himself, under Jesus.
- Jesus did not believe being one with God was possible
- : "Around the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, saying "Eli Eli lama sabachthani?" which is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?""
- : "And at the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, "Eloi Eloi lema sabachthani?" which is translated, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?""
Explanations to Scriptures cited in support to the Trinity
The Biblical Unitarian has a website
dedicated to explain the verses commonly used to try to support the doctrine of the Trinity.
There have been numerous other views of the relations of the Father
and Holy Spirit
; the most prominent include the following.
- Arius (AD ca. 250 or 256 - 336) believed that the Son was subordinate to the Father, firstborn of all creation. However, the Son did have Divine status.
- Ebionites (1st to 4th century AD) believed that the Son was subordinate to the Father and nothing more than a special human.
- Marcion (AD ca. 110-160) believed that there were two Deities, one of creation / Hebrew Bible and one of the New Testament.
- Modalism states that God has taken numerous forms in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, and that God has manifested Himself in three primary modes in regards to the salvation of mankind. Thus God is Father in creation (God created or begat a Son through the virgin birth), Son in redemption (God manifested Himself into or indwelt the begotten man Christ Jesus for the purpose of His death upon the cross), and Holy Spirit in regeneration (God's indwelling Spirit within the souls of Christian believers). In light of this view, God is not three separate Persons, but rather one God manifesting Himself in multiple ways. It is held by its proponents that this view maintains the strict monotheism found in Judaism and the Old Testament scriptures.
- Many Gnostic traditions held that the Christ is a heavenly Aeon but not one with the father.
- Docetism comes from the Greek: δοκηο (doceo), meaning "to seem." This view holds that Jesus only seemed to be human and only appeared to die.
- Adoptionism (2nd century AD) holds that Jesus became divine at his baptism (sometimes associated with the Gospel of Mark) or at his resurrection (sometimes associated with Saint Paul and Shepherd of Hermas).
- Swedenborgianism holds that the Trinity exists in One Person, the Lord God Jesus Christ. The Father, the Being or soul of God, was born into the world and put on a body from Mary. Throughout His life, Jesus put away all the merely human desires and tendencies inherited from Mary until He was completely Divine, even as to His flesh. After the resurrection He influences the world through the Holy Spirit, which is His activity. Thus Jesus Christ is the one God; the Father as to His soul, the Son as to His body, and the Holy Spirit as to His activity in the world.
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "Mormons," hold that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three separate and distinct individuals but can and do act together in perfect unity as a single monotheistic unit (the "Godhead") for the common purpose of saving mankind, Jesus Christ having received divine investiture of authority from Heavenly Father in the pre-mortal life. The Latter-day Saint doctrine on the Godhead began to be established with the First Vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1820 and found it's final form in a revelation received in 1843 (). They believe this view to be supported by New Testament scriptures, including the circumstances surrounding the baptism of Jesus and Christ's prayers to God. Christ's statement that He and His Father are "one" is interpreted to mean one in purpose, which purpose they believe the Apostles were also to join (after their resurrection) as Christ prayed in His intercessory prayer: "...that they may be one, as we are" ().
- Christadelphians, the Church of God General Conference (Abrahamic Faith) and the Biblical Unitarians believe that God is the Father, and that Jesus is his literal son. They believe that Jesus was totally human, and needed to be so in order to save people from their sins. In Christadelphian belief, the words "Holy Spirit" in the Bible refer to God's power, by which he does everything, and God's holy character/mind, depending on the context of the passage the words are in - either way, the Holy Spirit is not considered to be a person.
- Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Jesus Christ was the first creation of God and that God used him in the creation of the universe. They point to the fact that Jesus was called the "Son of God" on many occasions and claimed he had a God as proof that Christ is indeed subordinate to the Father. They believe that the holy spirit is not a person but God's power that he uses to accomplish things.
- Iglesia ni Cristo believe that the "Heavenly Father" is the only true God, who created all things. Jesus Christ is human in nature but was endowed by God with attributes not found in ordinary man. God has attributes not found in Jesus. God's will is for man to worship and honor Jesus Christ.
- Rastafarians accept Haile Selassie I, the former (and last) emperor of Ethiopia, as Jah (the Rasta name for God incarnate, from a shortened form of Jehovah found in Psalms 68:4 in the King James Version of the Bible), and part of the Holy Trinity as the messiah promised to return in the Bible.
- Islam's Holy Book, the Quran, denounces the concept of Trinity (Qur'an 4:171, 5:72-73, 112:1-4).
- The Urantia Book teaches that God is the first "Uncaused Cause" who is a personality that is omniscient, omnipresent, transcendent, infinite, eternal and omnipotent, but He is also a person of the Original Trinity - "The Paradise Trinity" who are the "First Source and Center, Second Source and Center, and Third Source and Center" or otherwise described as "God, The Eternal Son, and The Divine Holy Spirit". These personalities are not to be confused with Jesus who is also one with God, but not one of the Original Personalities of His Original Paradise Trinity. Each one of the Original Holy Trinity is a separate personality, but acting in function as a divine and First Trinity.
Christians have long contended that the doctrine of the Trinity is a prime example of Christian borrowing from pagan sources. According to this view, a simpler idea of God was lost very early in the history of the Church, through accommodation to pagan ideas, and the "incomprehensible" doctrine of the Trinity took its place. As evidence of this process, a comparison is often drawn between the Trinity and notions of a divine triad, found particularly in Indo-European
pagan religions and Hinduism
. Hinduism has a triad, i.e., Trimurti
As far back as Babylonia, the worship of pagan gods grouped in threes, or triads, was common. This influence was also evident in Egypt, Greece, and Rome in the centuries before, during, and after Christ. After the death of the apostles, many nontrinitarians contend that these pagan beliefs began to invade Christianity. (First and second century Christian writings reflect a certain belief that Jesus was one with God the Father, but anti-Trinitarians contend it was at this point that the nature of the oneness evolved from pervasive coexistence to identity.)
Some find a direct link between the doctrine of the Trinity, and the Egyptian theologians of Alexandria, for example. They suggest that Alexandrian theology, with its strong emphasis on the deity of Christ, was an intermediary between the Egyptian religious heritage and Christianity.
The Church is charged with adopting these pagan tenets, invented by the Egyptians and adapted to Christian thinking by means of Greek philosophy. As evidence of this, critics of the doctrine point to the widely acknowledged synthesis of Christianity with Platonic philosophy, which is evident in Trinitarian formulas that appeared by the end of the third century. "The Greek philosophical theology" was "developed during the Trinitarian controversies over the relationships among the persons of the Godhead. Roman Catholic doctrine became firmly rooted in the soil of Hellenism; and thus an essentially pagan idea was forcibly imposed on the churches beginning with the Constantinian period. At the same time, neo-Platonic trinities, such as that of the One, the Nous and the Soul, are not a trinity of consubstantial equals as in orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, the Neoplatonic trinity has the doctrine of emanation, a timeless procedure of generation having as a source the One and being paralleled with the generation of the light from the Sun, which was adopted by Origen and applied to the generation of the Son from the Father, because he wanted to support that the Father, as immutable, always had the Son with him, and thus the generation of the Son is eternal and timeless. This formula was accepted by Athanasius and others and became an official doctrine of the Church.
Nontrinitarians assert that Catholics must have recognized the pagan roots of the trinity, because the allegation of borrowing was raised by some disputants during the time that the Nicene doctrine was being formalized and adopted by the bishops. For example, in the 4th century Catholic Bishop Marcellus of Ancyra's writings, On the Holy Church,9 :
"Now with the heresy of the Ariomaniacs, which has corrupted the Church of God...These then teach three hypostases, just as Valentinus the heresiarch first invented in the book entitled by him 'On the Three Natures'. For he was the first to invent three hypostases and three persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he is discovered to have filched this from Hermes and Plato." (Source: Logan A. Marcellus of Ancyra (Pseudo-Anthimus), 'On the Holy Church': Text, Translation and Commentary. Verses 8-9. Journal of Theological Studies, NS, Volume 51, Pt. 1, April 2000, p.95 ).
Such a late date for a key term of Nicene Christianity, and attributed to a Gnostic, they believe, lends credibility to the charge of pagan borrowing. Marcellus was rejected by the Catholic Church for teaching a form of Sabellianism
The early apologists, including Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Irenaeus, frequently discussed the parallels and contrasts between Christianity and the pagan and syncretic religions, and answered charges of borrowing from paganism in their apologetical writings.
Many nontrinitarians have long contended that the doctrine of the Trinity
is a prime example of Christianity borrowing from Indo-European pagan sources. According to them, very early in the Church's history a simpler idea of God was lost and the incomprehensible doctrine of the Trinity took its place due to the Church's accommodation of pagan ideas. In support of this, they often compare the doctrine of the Trinity with notions of a divine triad found in ancient pagan religions and even in modern Hinduism
Those who argue for a pagan basis note that as far back as Babylonia, the worship of pagan gods grouped in threes, or triads, was common, and that this influence was also prevalent among the Celts, in Egypt, Greece, Rome and even in ancient India where the trio of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu were being worshiped centuries before, during, and after Jesus. The concept of the trio, the creator, the maintainer and the annihilator dates back to millennia before Christ. They allege that after the death of the apostles these pagan beliefs began to invade Christian doctrine. At the very least, they suggest that Greek philosophy brought a late influence into the creation of the doctrine.
Some nontrinitarians find a direct link, for example, between the doctrine of the Trinity and the Egyptian theologians of Alexandria, suggesting that Alexandrian theology with its strong emphasis on the deity of Jesus served to infuse Egypt's pagan religious heritage into Christianity. They charge the Church with adopting these Egyptian tenets after adapting them to Christian thinking by means of Greek philosophy. As evidence of this, they point to the widely acknowledged synthesis of Christianity with Platonic philosophy evident in Trinitarian formulas appearing by the end of the third century. Hence, beginning with the Constantinian period, they allege, these pagan ideas were forcibly imposed on the churches as Catholic doctrine rooted firmly in the soil of Hellenism. Most groups subscribing to the theory of a Great Apostasy generally concur in this thesis.
The Comma Johanneum (the portion of 1 John 5:7-8 that does not appear in the earliest Greek manuscripts) has been pointed out by some as an explicit statement of the Trinity; however on two accounts this is discredited. First, the authenticity of the passage is in doubt, not being found in what modern scholars regard as the "best" or oldest manuscripts; and secondly it suggests that the unity "in heaven" is one of agreement, rather than of essence - and therefore the verse does not distinguish Trinitarian belief.
Thus, while first and second century Christian writings do reflect a certain belief that Jesus was one with God the Father, Unitarian nontrinitarians contend that after that point in time the nature of that oneness evolved in the Church's hands, perhaps under the influence of other religion and philosophy, from a pervasive coexistence into a complete identity.
Other nonunitarian nontrinitarians, however, point to this passage from the Gospel of John, to support their view that Jesus was God in the Bible, "And Thomas answered and said to Him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" " (John 20:28-29 NKJV). Since Thomas called Jesus God, Jesus' statements appear to confirm His view of the correctness of Thomas' assertion. Of course, it is equally plausible that Thomas is addressing the Lord Jesus and God the Father who raised Jesus from the dead. Raymond E. Brown in Does the NT call Jesus God? notes on this passage: "... the contention of Theodore of Mopsuestia [c.400] that Thomas was uttering an exclamation of thanks to the Father finds few proponents today." "Dominus et deus noster" (Our Lord and God) was a title used by the Roman Emperor Domitian.
Advocates of the "Hellenic origins" argument consider it well supported by primary sources. They see these sources as tracing the influence of Philo on post-Apostolic Christian philosophers - many of them ex-pagan Hellenic philosophers - who then interpreted Scripture through the Neoplatonic filter of their original beliefs and subsequently incorporated those interpretations into their theology. The early synthesis between Hellenic philosophy and early Christianity was certainly made easier by the fact that so many of the earliest apologists (such as Athenagoras and Justin Martyr) were Greek converts themselves, whose original beliefs had consisted more of philosophy than religion.
Stuart G Hall (formerly Professor of Ecclesiastical History at King's College, London) describes the subsequent process of philosophical/theological amalgamation in Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church (1991), where he writes:
- The apologists began to claim that Greek culture pointed to and was consummated in the Christian message, just as the Old Testament was. This process was done most thoroughly in the synthesis of Clement of Alexandria. It can be done in several ways.
- You can rake through Greek literature, and find (especially in the oldest seers and poets) references to ‘God’ which are more compatible with monotheism than with polytheism (so at length Athenagoras.) You can work out a common chronology between the legends of prehistoric (Homer) Greece and the biblical record (so Theophilus.)
- You can adapt a piece of pre-Christian Jewish apologetic, which claimed that Plato and other Greek philosophers got their best ideas indirectly from the teachings of Moses in the Bible, which was much earlier.
- This theory combines the advantage of making out the Greeks to be plagiarists (and therefore second-rate or criminal), while claiming that they support Christianity by their arguments at least some of the time. Especially this applied to the question of God.
Philo himself had been influenced by Plato’s Timaeus, in which he called the logos “the image of God” and “the second God”. Many Trinitarians today are emphatic in their insistence that John's gospel deliberately makes use of the term "logos" (Example: ) because (according to them) he was fully aware of its Philonic meaning, and expected his readers to understand this. Some Trinitarians even go so far as to say that John himself was responsible for using the term in a new and especially religious way.
Philo's work reveals his dependence upon the Hellenic view that God Himself could not be directly responsible for the creation - for how could a perfect being produce an imperfect world, or the mutable derive from the immutable? The Greek solution was to propose the existence of a secondary divine being - the Demiurge - which, although tremendously powerful in its own right, was a little lower than God Himself (being neither perfect nor immutable in the absolute sense), and could therefore be safely associated with the creative process. To the Greeks, this arrangement was both a logical and philosophical necessity, and Philo - following his Hellenic inclinations - emphasizes it strongly in De Opificio:
- The Absolute Being, the Father, who had begotten all things, gave an especial grace to the Archangel and First-born Logos (Word), that standing between, He might sever the creature from the Creator. The same is ever the Intercessor for the dying mortal before the immortal God, and the Ambassador and the Ruler to the subject. He is neither without beginning of days, as God is, nor is He begotten, as we are, but is something between these extremes, being connected with both.
Here, then, was a concept which would bridge the gap between Greek philosophy and the Christian Scriptures, allowing the Hellenic philosopher-theologians to understand Christianity in the context of their own cosmological views. Instead of abandoning their philosophical preconceptions, they were able to import them into their new religion. It is therefore easy to understand the attractiveness of the Philonic model among Greek converts to Christianity.
The idea was warmly received by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen and Arius (to name but a few), who successfully developed it over several centuries.
To quote again from Hall's Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church:
- Justin’s ‘creed’, as we saw, spoke of a transcendent God and Father, of his Son (with the angels), and of the Spirit of prophecy. This triple confession is in line with what we know of the baptismal formula.
- But when we look at the theology of the apologists, we find that generally their thought is ‘binitarian’ rather than ‘Trinitarian’: it speaks of God and his Word, rather than of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The term ‘Trinity’ was not yet in use in the Church.
- Theophilus is the first to use the Greek word for Trinity (trias, triad), when he takes the first three days of creation as signifying the trinity of ‘God and his Word and his Wisdom’ (To Autolycus 2.15), and Tertullian soon after 200 was using the Latin trinitas of God.
- If we suppose that the baptismal confession and central Christian belief was in a threefold form, we have to account for the binitarian thought of Justin and those like him. The most obvious explanation is that their apologetic is directed towards Greek thought. They began from what appeared to be common ground.
- Among the Greeks, a familiar notion was the thought of an utterly transcendent, perfect, unmoving God, and of a second, mediating, active being responsible for the created order, whether as its superior governor or as its immanent soul.
- Such a theology was being propounded, for instance, by the Platonist Albinos in Asia Minor at the same time that Justin was himself there, before he moved to Rome.
Quite apart from any philosophical reasons (which were certainly influential in their own right), the church preserved the Philonic writings because Eusebius of Caesarea labeled the monastic ascetic groups of Therapeutae and Therapeutrides - described in Philo's De Vita Contemplativa - as Christians (which they were not.) Eusebius also promoted the legend that Philo met Peter in Rome, while Jerome (345-420 CE) even lists him as a church Father. None of this was true, but in time (via church tradition) it came to be accepted as historical fact. Thus, through a series of pious frauds, Philo's work was eventually elevated to the level of honorary orthodoxy.
One standard reference for the "pagan origins" hypothesis is Alexander Hislop's The Two Babylons. It is charged that the book is poorly researched and badly written while being well referenced and powerfully presented. Critics contend the book contains a multitude of errors easily overlooked by the untrained eye, and say its popularity among nontrinitarians is a result of uncritical acceptance. A critique of the Hislop hypothesis (written from a non-trinitarian perspective) is available here.
Controversy over status
Most nontrinitarians identify themselves as Christian. In this regard The Encyclopedia Britannica
states, "To some Christians the doctrine of the Trinity appeared inconsistent with the unity of God....They therefore denied it, and accepted Jesus Christ, not as incarnate God, but as God's highest creature by Whom all else was created....[this] view in the early Church long contended with the orthodox doctrine. This view (nontrinitarian) “in the early church”, still supported by some Christians, generates controversy among mainstream Christians. Most trinitarians considered it heresy
not to believe in the Trinity.
Christianity is typically understood as Trinitarian monotheism in its God-concept, although the theological and philosophical work needed to differentiate this from tritheism is significant. This difficulty is so great that non-Christians who make the attempt are often left with a view of Christianity as being a faith of tritheism or quadratheism when dealing with Roman Catholics and their focus on Mariology. Some scholars get the general sense that the Cappadocian Fathers, who developed the idea of Trinity, were themselves not entirely convinced of its truth. However, some framework was needed to reconcile the centrality of Jesus for the Christian experience with the figure of YHWH or "Abba" of which Jesus was a representative, and the best option at that time was this trinity idea. In any discussion of early Christianity, it is important to remember that a small sect like Christianity needed to show itself as quantifiably different from that which came before and the surrounding culture in general. In order to accomplish this, a standard theology was needed. With this theology, the group could define itself and rally around a central cause or figure. This made the faith strong, but after the faith grew beyond the danger of being destroyed by Rome, it also made the faith somewhat myopic when it came to dissenting views.
Although some denominations require their members to profess faith in the trinity, most mainline denominations have taken a "hands-off" policy on the subject of the trinity, realizing that since personal study and free thought have been encouraged for years, it is not surprising that some of the conclusions reached would be nontrinitarian. The recognition here is that the trinity is a tool for pointing to a greater truth. In other words, Christianity has historically sought to look beyond its doctrines (see Apophasis) to the greater truth they are intended to address, i.e. God. It is not uncommon for a Methodist, Presbyterian, or Anglican to profess non-trinitarian views, even among the clergy. The response from the governing bodies of those denominations is usually neutral, so long as the disagreement is voiced in respect.
At times, segments of Nicene Christianity reacted with ultimate severity toward nontrinitarian views. At other times, especially among Protestants, the same views have been accommodated. See ''the related section of the Unitarianism article for a more detailed discussion.
- Ignatius c. 110 (he considers the Father superior)
- Papias of Hierapolis c. 130 (he considers the Father superior)
- Hermas c. 140 (he considers the Father superior and the Son as the archangel Michael)
- Justin the Martyr c. 150 (he considers the Father superior and the Son born in time)
- Clement of Alexandria c. 190 (he considers the Father superior and the Son born in time)
- Ireneaus of Lyons c. 200 (he considers the Father superior, but the Son as co-eternal)
- Tertullian c. 200 (he considers the Father superior and the Son born in time)
- Natalius, ~200
- Sabellius, ~220
- Origen c. 230 (he considers the Father superior, but the Son as co-eternal)
- Paul of Samosata, 269
- Arius, 336
- Eusebius of Nicomedia, 341, baptized Constantine
- Constantius II, Byzantine Emperor, 361
- Antipope Felix II, 365
- Aëtius, 367
- Ulfilas, Apostle to the Goths, 383
- Priscillian, 385, considered first Christian to be executed for heresy
- Muhammad, 632, see also Isa
- Ludwig Haetzer, 1529
- Michael Servetus, 1553, burned at the stake in Geneva under John Calvin
- Sebastian Castellio, 1563
- Ferenc Dávid, 1579
- Fausto Paolo Sozzini, 1604
- John Biddle, 1662
- Thomas Aikenhead, 1697, last person to be hanged for blasphemy in Britain
- John Locke, 1704
- Isaac Newton, 1727
- William Whiston, 1752, expelled from University of Cambridge in 1710
- Jonathan Mayhew, 1766
- Emanuel Swedenborg, 1772
- Benjamin Franklin, 1790
- Joseph Priestley, 1804
- Joseph Smith, 1805
- Thomas Paine, 1809
- Thomas Jefferson, 1826
- James Madison, 1836
- William Ellery Channing, 1842
- Robert Hibbert, 1849
- John Thomas (Christadelphian), 1871
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1882
- Robert Roberts (Christadelphian), 1898
- Benjamin Wilson, 1900
- James Martineau, 1900
- Félix Manalo, 1914
- Charles Taze Russell, 1916
- Neville Chamberlain, 1940
- William Branham, 1965
- Herbert W. Armstrong, 1986
- Eliseo Soriano, 1947