Why did Orthodox churches in the fourth century invent a dogma specifying the character of a triune Deity (one god existing in three coequal, coeternal, consubstantial persons)? The decision was occasioned by several historical currents in the first four centuries of the common era. Long before Jesus was born, the ancient Greeks had bestowed divine honors on kings and great men whose careers were thought to have been unusually outstanding. They thought that these human beings had a divine origin; that is, they were born as a result of a union between a God and a human being, which explained their unusual abilities. As a result, such people were honored or worshipped at various centers in the ancient Greek world. They were not Gods in the sense of the twelve traditional Gods of the Greco-Roman world; they were simply a special class of men given divine honors. Most likely the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke were read this way outside Christian circles in the ancient world of their time. When the “good news” about Jesus moved out of the Israelite culture of Judea into the broader Greco-Roman world, it encountered the competition of healing gods, hero cults, and divine emperors. Jesus needed to acquire similar credentials in order to be successful in such a world.1
The idea of a Trinity emerges in the context of the historical process that gradually bestows divine honors on Jesus by his Gentile followers in the Greco-Roman world. It is the divinizing of Jesus that eventually forces the dogma of the Trinity as a solution to the problem of three divine figures: God the Father, Jesus Christ (Son of God), and the Holy Spirit. At least eight types are hinted at in this process. Details of the process have long since been washed out by time and lack of sources, but its broad outlines remain.
- Jesus was a human being (Mark 10:17-18; a saying that has Jesus deny that he is God).2
- Jesus was not divine but a human being whom God adopted or appointed to his role (Rom 1:3-4; Acts 13:32-33; Ps 2:7).
- Jesus was by nature a human being who was inhabited by a divine spirit, “the Christ,” or “the Living Jesus” (Mark 1:10; Apocalypse of Peter 81:15-21).
- Jesus was partly divine and partly human, like other sons of God in the Greco-Roman world (Mark 15:39).
- Jesus was not a human being at all. He was completely divine and only seemed to be human (what remains of this docetic position is its denial by 1 John 1:1, 4:2).
- Jesus was both human and divine, but he did not have two natures; he was at once human-divine (expressed in the early creeds of Orthoxoxy3).
- The humanity of Jesus was incidental to his nature (reflected in the creeds of Orthodoxy in that the creeds skip over the public career of Jesus: “Born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary <…> crucified under Pilate and was buried”).
- Jesus was, in some way, to be equated with God (John 1:2; 20:28, Ignatius, Ephesians, Salutation, 18:2.; Romans, Salutation, 3:3; Smyrnaeans 1:1).4
Thus, early Orthodoxy found itself in the awkward position of ascribing divinity to three different figures (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), and hence was subject to the charge of polytheism; it was a situation similar to that of the multiple Gods in Greco-Roman religions.5 The invention of the dogma of the Trinity provides a defense against this criticism, for Father, Son, Holy Spirit were not viewed as three different figures but, as a trinity, one figure manifesting itself in three different ways.
Missouri State University
1I have taken these comments from my article “Is belief in the divinity of Jesus essential to being Christian,” The Fourth R 24.5 (September-October 2011), 15-20, 26. For examples of the divinizing of kings and men of unusual ability, see pages 15-16.
2A suggestion made to me by Dennis Maher.
3Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church (3rd ed.; Oxford, University Press, 1999), 25-29; Hedrick, “A Revelation Discourse of Jesus,” Journal of Coptic Studies 7 (2005), 13-15.
4My thanks to Dennis Carpenter for pushing the trajectory into the second century. In many ways the Gospel of John fits the profile of the church in the second century better than the first century.
5Lucian of Samosata, a second century satirist and rhetorician satirizes the excessive number of Gods in the ancient world in The Parliament of the Gods: https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/wl4/wl430.htm