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
In "Who Wrote the New Testament," Mack argues that Jesus died as a martyr, comparing, for example, New testament language with that of the intertestamental literature such as the Maccabees. Please share any ideas you have on why the martyrdom of the Son of God for the sins of mankind turned out to be the main story line (that eventually led to the Trinitarian dilemma), as contrasted, say, with the possible storyline of the martyrdom of the King of the Jews for the kingdom of God, which (it seems to me) would be more consistent with the earliest gospel material(Q) and a major theme in the arrest/trial/crucifixion narrative. I'm thinking that the temple/sacrificial system was so strong in both the Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures and the eternal rewards so immediately available that standing up for the kingdom's way of living (We remember, for example, that the kingdom belongs to chldren!) didn't stand a chance for being chosen as the correct way to understand Jesus.
Yes, thank you Charlie- that explains it: The Trinity was a defense provided against the criticism of polytheism... My question is- why do you think it worked? How did they pull this off so efficiently and seamlessly???
How many Christians today still believe this "trinity" doctrine? My guess is at least 90%. But that's only a guess. How old were you when you began to see through the farce that God is a "triune" deity- and who was responsible for opening your eyes to that nonsensical orthodoxy?
It's quite amazing the lengths to which pastors will go to convince believers that the triune deity is NOT polytheistic... Here's one example among many:
"In order for something to be contradictory, it must violate the law of noncontradiction. This law states that A cannot be both A (what it is) and non-A (what it is not) at the same time and in the same relationship. In other words, you have contradicted yourself if you affirm and deny the same statement. For example, if I say that the moon is made entirely of cheese but then also say that the moon is not made entirely of cheese, I have contradicted myself.
Other statements may at first seem contradictory but are really not. Theologian R.C. Sproul cites as an example Dickens’ famous line, 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.' Obviously this is a contradiction if Dickens means that it was the best of times in the same way that it was the worst of times. But he avoids contradiction with this statement because he means that in one sense it was the best of times, but in another sense it was the worst of times.
Carrying this concept over to the Trinity, it is not a contradiction for God to be both three and one because He is not three and one in the same way. He is three in a different way than He is one. Thus, we are not speaking with a forked tongue — we are not saying that God is one and then denying that He is one by saying that He is three. This is very important: God is one and three at the same time, but not in the same way.
How is God one? He is one in essence. How is God three? He is three in Person. Essence and person are not the same thing. God is one in a certain way (essence) and three in a different way (person). Since God is one in a different way than He is three, the Trinity is not a contradiction. There would only be a contradiction if we said that God is three in the same way that He is one.
So a closer look at the fact that God is one in essence but three in person has helped to show why the Trinity is not a contradiction. But how does it show us why there is only one God instead of three? It is very simple:
All three Persons are one God because, as we saw above, they are all the same essence. Essence means the same thing as 'being.' Thus, since God is only one essence, He is only one being-not three."
I won't bore you with the explanation given to distinguish the difference between "person" and "essence." I guess the only question I have at this point is this: Why do so many Christians believe this Trinity dogma wholeheartedly? It's the number one reason Jews and Muslims want nothing to do with Christianity. They are true monotheists. I've seen the anger in the faces of many a Christian trying to tell a Jew that Christianity really is a monotheistic religion... They get red in the face and now I know why. Elizabeth
The resistance to polytheism wasn’t too strong, since they still had Satan/the devil, who they morphed into a supernatural force for evil, a god in most respects of the word . That I suppose consolidated “evil” into a nice package. 2 Cor. 12 even gave Satan his own metaphorical angels shooting thorns instead of arrows. I have grandpa’s William Gladstone book “Jesus is Coming,” which he received upon graduation at Wake Forest (a book touting premillennial dispensation) . It conflated the “antichrist” with Satan, calling him “the culminating manifestation of Satan” (chapter 12). A poll I have from about a decade ago has 62% of Christians and 92% of “born again Christians” believing this “god of evil” exists. I’m sure they wouldn’t admit it to be a god, but nevertheless as the consummate enemy of their god, and just as "real," it fits the bill... It “walks like a duck and quacks like a duck.”
I really don’t understand what the resistance was or is to polytheism, unless it was this love/hate relationship of Christianity toward Judaism, which was the religion it abused but still had to admit was its monotheistic root. If one really needs such a concept as a god, the more the merrier!
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good Morning Elizabeth,
You asked how they pulled it off? The formal statement of Trinity did not occur until late in the 4th Century and by that time Orthodoxy was in control of the Church and was supported by the state. All formal opposition to Orthodoxy in the West had virtually disappeared. How could they not be successful?
How old was I when I saw through the "farce" as you put it. As I recall, I never worried with the concept of Trinity. I thought of Jesus as "Son of God" and God as God--in other words separate entities. I wasn't bothered by the idea of multiple Gods, because I did not think of Jesus as God. He was a human being, God's Son.
I suppose if one thinks about it: if there can be one God why can there not be more than one? The history of religions seems to bear out polytheism is the rule. And besides the ancient Israelites allowed for the "existence" of other Gods. But they only served one. The ancient Israelites were henotheists: henotheism is the recognition of multiple gods but service is rendered only to one.
I wrote a short essay on "Are Christians saved by the blood of Jesus" and in that essay tried briefly to answer the questions why and how: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=blood
With respect to the martyrdom of Jesus. I do not think the earliest gospel (Mark) portrays Jesus as a martyr: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=jesus+as+martyr (see note 6).
I also took up the question of Jesus as King in Mark: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=king
Perhaps something in these three essays might give some assistance in your pursuit of the issues.
I agree that devils and demons are Gods if one believes them the be. Zoroastrian religion in Persian thought projected two eternally competing Gods, one good and the other evil. It is not unlike what we currently have in Christianity, except in Christianity, Satan/the Prince of Darkness is projected to be overcome at the end of times (Rev chapter 20). But who knows how things will turn out.
The word polytheism never came up in my religious training but the word idol did... "Thou shalt have no other Gods before me." To have been a young person and to be able to "never worry with the concept of the Trinity" means you weren't susceptible to indoctrination. That's a rarity-especially in Mississippi. If you had been born in New York or California, it wouldn't surprise me as much.
In this advent season, I have two questions with regard to Jesus of Nazareth... Did Nazereth the town actually exist in Judea? If so, where? Rabbi Singer claims it was recently discovered, even though it no longer exists since it was literally a one-horse town. Matthew and Luke go to great lengths although in conflict with one another to connect Jesus to both Nazareth and Bethlehem.
Did Josephus actually write about Jesus or was that added later by an imposter? Elizabeth
PS: Yes of course one can have just as many gods as one wishes as long as you are ok with being called an idolator. Most people don't wish to be saddled with that label, but to each his own.
"Have no other gods in addition to (or besides) me" does not deny the existence of other gods and has nothing to do with idols, but that all the other gods should not be worshipped... And there were quite a few, even in the backwoods between Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Then don't worship Jesus- he's another god. That makes one an idolator, trinity or no trinity. "Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is ONE." Stop worshipping Jesus or you are an idolator... at least according to the teachings of Judaism. All the trinities in the world cannot stop Jesus from being an idol, in the eyes of Jews anyway. Why do you think the oldest Anglican church in Jerusalem displays no Cross or mention of Jesus on it? Because they know Jesus is just another idol and Jews want nothing to do with that... And neither do 99% of Christians. They trick Jews into converting by telling them they won't become "Christians" but will be "Fulfilled Messianic Jews." Elizabeth
According to the dictionary: "The word graven means “carved” or “sculpted.” Graven image refers to some kind of object or image that has been made to represent a god. The word idol can also refer to the deity or god that is being worshiped, but graven image is not typically used this way. ... In this way, graven images are sometimes called false idols."
That is a different commandment, a different concept. The second also prohibited worshipping an image of YHWH. Whilst the first says, "Pick me," the second says, "Gods ain't paltry sculptures... Worship me, not my picture." (Unless it's a selfie???)
Dennis Dean Carpenter
The word idol can also refer to the deity or god that is being worshipped, thus the need for one so-called deity. Can't have multiple deities being worshipped in Christianity (Sorry, Jesus) because the Lord is God, the Lord is One... According to him anyway.
Applying "idol" to the Second commandment makes YHWH an idol, since "his" figure was forbidden as an item of worship (v.4-5). Doesn't matter to me, just stating the ramification of conflating the two commandments.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Indeed it shouldn't matter to you or anyone else because 100% percent of church going Christians conflate, confuse, conflict holy scriptures every day of the week... It's called Bible Study. There's no concrete ramifications in how one interprets second commandment- unless you're a basement blogger. Of course spouting off some obscure contrarian view at dinner parties or faculty lounges can be entertaining. People have always gotten a kick out those Cliff Clavin types.
To be clearer, the first commandment has nothing to do with "idols," found in the second. The 1st has to do with the gods that the Israelites, (as opposed to what biblical religion wants one to believe)worshipped, like Baal, El, Astarte, etc. (Etc. sounds like a good name for a god!)The second had to do with the banning of ALL representations of figures of worship.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
The first commandment has everything to do with the worship of idols (which is just another word for a foreign god) because any deity other than the God of Israel is considered an idol- that's why they don't believe in or worship Jesus. Whether its a statue or not, the worship of any other god makes you an idolator. Rabbi Singer and Rabbi Skobac (and others) are the authority on the ten commandments.
It’s interesting that God is described in the Bible in a variety of ways: anthropomorphically (Gen. 2-3), theriomorphically (Numb. 23.22, Pss 17.8, 36.7, 1 Kg. 12.28) and physiomorphically (Deut. 32, a variety of Pss.). To add to this, God has a human body in Gen.2-3, a super-sized body in Ex.2410, Ez.1.26, and a “heavenly” body (Isaiah 66.1, Ps. 113.6). This god can be different sizes and the image of humans, animals or objects (from Mark Smith, ”Where the Gods are”). The various images one gets from the many descriptions of the biblical “God” are read metaphorical or poetic, but iconographic representations of Western Semitic gods in these categories of forms have also been found on steles. Size & form give different basic representations for one god in biblical lore... The same god also has a “divine council” of gods (Gen.1, Isaiah 6, Job 1 & 2, 1 Kings 22.19-22). As one finds, gods aren’t always created “equal,” even in the Bible! When one looks at these depictions of “God” as found in the Hebrew writings, the Trinity doesn’t sound quite as silly, just another vain attempt to create a palatable god, one which worked in cultures familiar with associating their gods and goddesses by threes.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
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