The Trinity Controversy
by Albert Emanuel
Introduction: Why would a Christian question the doctrine of the Trinity? Why would
a member of the body of Christ doubt the "central mystery" of Christianity? Does it not
define orthodoxy and has it not been established for centuries? Why stir up trouble?
Why disturb sleeping doctrines? I intend to show that there are good biblical reasons
for questioning the doctrine of the Trinity. Even some trinitarians have expressed
doubts about this doctrine. In fact, most of the quotations in this article are from
trinitarians who question various aspects of the orthodox doctrine of God. I introduce
readers to the competing models of the Trinity and show that trinitarians are a house
Understanding the relationship between the Father and the Son is the key issue in this
debate. Are they one being or two separate beings? Are they equal or is one greater
than the other? Is Christ a distinct person or a mode of God? Was the Son of God
created or eternally begotten? Was Jesus God incarnate or a deified human being?
These same questions which caused rancorous debate and intense turmoil in the
fourth century have resurfaced in modern times and continue to be a source of conflict.
The quest for the true doctrine of God did not end at the council of Constantinople in
381. It continues unabated among contemporary theologians and has created deep
divisions within the evangelical community. Trinitarians who teach that Christ is
subordinate to the Father are careful to avoid being labeled Arians, but detractors
think that subordinationism borders on heresy. Modern subordinationists are in the
process of reinventing the Trinity and introducing Arian elements into the doctrine of
God. I consider this a positive development because it questions the Nicene Creed and
exposes Christians to an alternative doctrine of God. We need to ask: Is Arianism an
old heresy being kept alive or a truth that won't go away?
This article introduces readers to biblical monotheism, the belief that God is one
person. It represents a strong Christian alternative to the doctrine of the Trinity.
Orthodox Jews correctly believe that the God of Abraham is one single person.
And Jesus can be considered a true monotheist because he worships one person
as his God. Scripture reveals that the Father is the God of Jesus Christ. The biblical
concept that God is one person was embedded in the Jewish mind. Neither Jesus nor
the apostles repudiated that belief. The doctrine of the Trinity is foreign and hostile
to biblical monotheism. Scripture does not teach that the Father and the Son are the
same being. It teaches that they are separate and distinct beings. Jesus is the only
begotten Son of God and subordinate to the Father. In this article, I expose the errors
in the doctrine of the Trinity and restore the true doctrine of God to its rightful place in
Chapter one The Theological Crisis
Chapter two Portrait of Athanasius
Chapter three The Cappadocian Fathers
Chapter four Explanations of the Trinity
Chapter five Unity or Plurality in God
Chapter six Scripture and the Trinity
Chapter seven The Weight of Greek Grammar
Chapter eight The New Trinitarians
Chapter nine The Seven absurdities of the Trinity
Chapter ten Concluding Remarks
The Theological Crises
The approaching theological storm began to gather momentum when Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, began hearing reports that a presbyter named Arius was teaching questionable doctrines about the relationship between the Father and the Son. Because of the weightiness of the matter, the bishop decided to respond.
Richard Rubenstein relates the story:
"In 318, he delivered a series of sermons maintaining strongly that Jesus Christ was
Eternal God in the form of a man and that beliefs to the contrary were heretical. If
the sermons were designed to provoke a public response, they succeeded. Arius
published an open letter challenging the prelate's view. Alexander ordered him to
appear before him to defend his position; and the controversy escalated sharply"
(When Jesus became God, p. 56).
When Arius refused to recant, Alexander convened a council and had the presbyter excommunicated from the church and banished from Alexandria. Arius then began to enlist the support of powerful bishops and scholars in the Greek-speaking church. A well respected bishop named Eusebius of Nicomedia sided with Arius and began writing letters to other bishops on his behalf. Arius traveled to Palestine where he received the endorsement of Eusebius of Caesarea, the "first great historian of the Christian church". Eusebius called a council of bishops in his jurisdiction and they vindicated Arius' orthodoxy and demanded that bishop Alexander reinstate him. But he refused and continued to warn the church against Arius. Because the conflict spread throughout the church and threatened the stability of the Roman Empire, Constantine convened the council of Nicaea in 325 and tried to settle the matter. But the wording of the Nicene Creed inflamed the debate and precipitated a theological war that lasted until the council of Constantinople in 381.
In the fourth century, there were approximately 1800 bishops in the entire church, but only 250 attended the first council of Nicaea. Less than fifteen percent of the bishops in the universal church voted to approve the Nicene Creed, which means that over eighty-five percent had no vote. Thus, adopting the Nicene Creed can hardly be called an ecumenical decision. For purely pragmatic reasons, Constantine pressured the bishops into accepting the creed. He thought he had achieved his objective, but in fact the document rent the church asunder for over fifty years.
Constantine's participation and interference in the council of Nicaea created a serious theological problem. After Eusebius of Caesarea, an Arian, argued his case and then presented a creed which contained his statement of belief, Constantine requested that the word "homoousios" be added to indicate that Jesus shared the same essence as the Father. "Homoousios" is made up of two words, "homo" which means "the same" and "ousios" which can mean "essence", "substance", or "being". The problem for Arians was that the word "homoousios" suggested that the Father and the Son were the same and that God divided his own substance to make a son.
Richard Rubenstein comments on the difficulty that this word creates:
"Homoousios had been kicking around Eastern theological circles for some time, but most
churchmen did not like it, since it was a Greek philosophical term not found anywhere in
scripture. More important, it had been associated with the heresy of Sabellius: the idea
that Jesus Christ was an aspect or activity of God lacking any real existence of his own"
(When Jesus became God, p. 80).
Eusebius of Caesarea accepted Constantine's recommendation to add the word "homoousios" to the Nicene Creed. And even though he was an Arian, he signed the document because he felt it was sufficiently flexible to accommodate an Arian interpretation. However, hard-line Arians were not persuaded and voted against the creed. As a result, they were removed from office and banished.
In his book "The Story of Christian Theology", Roger Olson relates that "after the council of Nicaea the Sabellian bishop Marcellus of Ancyra had proclaimed it and its creed a great triumph for modalism. He and his fellow Sabellians declared that the term 'homoousios' (consubstantial) had identified the Father and the Son so closely that they are to be considered one and the same substance, or personal identity. Their only difference is in appearance or manifestation. The creed and the council had failed to explain the correct distinction between the Father and the Son and had neglected the Holy Spirit almost altogether" (p. 163). The ambiguous terminology of the creed lends itself to that interpretation and allows modalists' to claim the victory. Olson tell us that "Constantine became convinced that the council had not finished its work and that it had, in fact, written the wrong wording into the creed. He wanted to take it all back and rewrite it" (p. 161).
Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan comments on the vocabulary of the Nicene Creed:
"The outcome of those struggles over language was highly complicated and often almost
counterintuitive. For example, a term like 'fullness' (pleroma), which could claim impeccable
credentials in key passages of the New Testament about the relation of the person of Christ
to God...nevertehless did not manage to find its way into the creeds...Even the term 'logos'
did not make it into the creeds, in spite of its prominence not only in the New Testament but
in subsequent theological development. But the term 'homoousios', which had less than
respectable origins and which had great difficulty shaking off an unmistakable odor of heresy,
is enshrined forever in the Creed of Nicaea and then in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed"
(Credo, p. 26).
Had the creed been defined using scriptural vocabulary the outcome would have been significantly different. The most glaring error would have been avoided by simply omitting the word "homoousios". And by using New Testament words such as "pleroma" and "logos', these theologians could have correctly defined the relation of the person of Christ to God. Why is it that fourth century pro-Nicene theologians refused to formulate a creed that used a strictly biblical vocabulary? Did they think that biblical terminology was insufficient and that it was necessary to borrow words and concepts from Platonism and Neo-Platonism or were they so charmed and inebriated with mystical pagan philosophy that they couldn't resist the temptation to incorporate non-biblical concepts into the doctrine of God? Did not the apostle Paul warn about being enticed by worldly philosophy? Apparently the pro-Nicene fathers ignored his advice. Even Jaroslav Pelican fails to realize that the Nicene Creed itself has an "unmistakable odor of heresy".
In spite of the consensus reached at Nicaea, the Arian controversy did not disappear. Arianism remained alive in the eastern empire.
Richard Rubenstein inform us of the developments:
"Within three years, over the vehement protest of anti-Arians, Arius, Eusebius, and their
fellow exiles would be forgiven by Constantine and welcomed back to the church. Eusebius
would become Constantine's closest advisor, and would insist that Athanasius, now bishop
of Alexandria, readmit Arius to communion in that city as well. A decade after that, with
bishop Athanasius himself in exile, Arianism would be well on the way to becoming the
dominant theology of the Eastern Empire" (When Jesus became God, p. 84).
Many Christians are not aware of the fact that another gathering known as the joint council of Rimini-Seleucia was called in 359 and "attended by more than five hundred bishops from both east and west. If any meeting deserved the title 'ecumenical,' that one seems to qualify, but its result --- the adoption of the Arian creed --- was later repudiated by the church" (When Jesus became God, p. 75). Thirty-four years after the Nicene Creed was approved, another church council repudiated it and adopted Arianism. The question is: Which council approved the correct doctrine?
The bitter dispute that had raged for over sixty years came to a grinding halt at the council of Constantinople in 381. Richard Hanson notes that "immediately after the council ended...Theodosius issued an edict confirming its conclusions...anyone who refused to communicate with these (a list of bishops who accepted the Trinity) is declared to be a heretic and is to be refused office in the church. By this edict Theodosius finally and decisively rendered the pro-Nicene version of the Christian faith the official religion of the Roman Empire" (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, p. 821).
Richard Hanson's book is, according to Lewis Ayres, "the standard English scholarly treatment of the Trinitarian controversy of the fourth century". This monumental work with its meticulous scholarship and synthesis of primary and secondary literature makes it a necessary tool in studying the Nicene-Arian controversy. In his introduction, Hanson points out that Arius was a minor player in the doctrinal war. This presbyter from Alexandria was "not a great heresiarch in the same sense as Marcion or Mani or Pelagius might deserve the term. He virtually disappeared from the controversy at an early stage in its course" (xvii). Hanson contends that a crisis concerning the doctrine of God had gradually been gathering among the various schools of thought. Arius was "the spark that started the explosion, but in himself he was of no great significance" (xvii). Hanson rightly diminishes the role that Arius played in the controversy and correctly excludes him from the list of great heretics.
Hanson makes an important observation regarding the Arian controversy. Many have assumed that the orthodox position had been formed prior to the outbreak of the controversy. But Hanson disagrees. He writes that "another important point to realize about the period which forms the subject of this book is that it was not a history of the defense of an agreed and settled orthodoxy against the assaults of open heresy. On the subject which was primarily under discussion there was not as yet any orthodox doctrine" (xviii). This remark is significant because it dispels the myth that the doctrine of the Trinity had already been established as orthodoxy. Hanson points out that "if the solution to the problem was clear from the start, why did the controversy last sixty years? Why did it involve several successive Roman Emperors and entail the holding of at least twenty councils? Why the polemical treatises, deposition of bishops of all opinions, riots, antagonism of parties, numerous creeds, division between Latin-speaking Westerners and Greek-speaking Easterners? The defense of well-established and well known orthodoxy could not possible account for such widespread and long-lasting disturbances. Both sides - indeed all sides, for there were more than two - appealed confidently to tradition to support them. All sides believed that they
had the authority of scripture in their favor. Each describes the others as unorthodox, untraditional, and
unscriptural" (xix). Thus, it can be rightly said that Arians were not questioning an orthodoxy that existed prior to the controversy. The church had no orthodox doctrine of God. It remained to be formulated.
And for those who think that the doctrine of subordinationism was heresy, Hanson lays that fallacy to rest. He states that "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 of the controversy, have been described as orthdoxy" (xix). Because the accounts of the controversy were written by the victors, many get the mistaken impression that Athanasius was defending orthodox doctrine against heresy. But, in fact, those who rejected subordinationism were departing from orthodoxy. The elimination of subordinationism from the doctrine of God was a serious theological mistake and constituted a radical departure from what had been accepted as orthodoxy. As Hanson noted, theologians east and west believed that Jesus was subordinate to the Father. Athanasius reintroduced the doctrine of consubstantiality and gave it the pretence of orthodoxy.
I would like to conclude this chapter with Hanson's general comments regarding Nicene and Arian theologians:
"The pro-Nicenes are at their worst, their most grotesque, when they tried to show that the
new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day were really found in scripture.
The Greek speakers cannot pretend that 'ousia' appears in either the Septuagint or New
Testament, but they racked the Bible to find examples of 'hypostasis', and when they find
it do their best to make the context appear relevant. With one doubtful exception, Heb 1:3
where it means 'substance', whereas they want it to mean 'person', this is an impossible
task; but the impossibility does not deter them" (p. 846).
This points out the highly questionable practice of using non-biblical terms to define the doctrine of God. Why go outside of scripture and borrow terms from pagan philosophy? Would it not be better to remain within the confines of scripture and employ biblical terminology? Claiming that terms taken from pagan philosophy are contained in the Bible creates the false impression that pro-Nicene doctrines are based on scripture. I am of the opinion that biblical terminology is sufficient to define the doctrine of God and that employing terms from pagan philosophy confuses the issue and opens the door to deception.
Hanson continues his comment by saying that "Gryson goes further, and declares that the pro-Nicene's were always a little apprehensive of entering the ground of scripture in encounter with Arians: 'because the sacred authors were not acquainted with the philosophic idea of consubstantiality, and their language tended to support the archaizing theology of the Arians' (p. 847). Thus, it appears that Arians were standing on the solid ground of scripture while pro-Nicene's were sinking in the quicksand of pagan terminology.
Hanson makes some rather disturbing remarks about theologians of the fourth century:
"The last word of appeal to the Bible during this crucial period in the history of Christian
doctrine, however, must be of the impression made of a student of the period that the
expounders of the text of the Bible are incompetent and ill-prepared to expound it. This
applies as much to the wooden and unimaginative approach of the Arians as it does to
the fixed determination of their opponents to read their doctrines into the Bible by hook
or by crook. This impression emerges strongly in the fact that time and time again both
sides produce diametrically different meanings from the same text" (p. 848).
Arian interpretations appear wooden and unimaginative for the simple reason that they took a more literalistic approach to scripture and refused to read imaginary meanings into the Bible. Pro-Nicene's were creative with scripture and highly imaginative in their interpretations, but that should not be construed as a compliment. Taking liberty with the word of God and reading things into the Bible is a recipe for heresy. Scripture contains a complete doctrine of God that is defined in biblical terms and does not need supplementation from Greek philosophy. Changing the terms used to define the doctrine of God had the disastrous consequence of creating a new and unscriptural concept of God. By using words foreign to the Bible, the pro-Nicene's produced an alien definition of God that hitherto had been unknown in theology.
In his chapter on the development of doctrine, Hanson writes that "there is no doubt, however, that the pro-Nicene theologians throughout the controversy were engaged in the process of developing doctrine and consequently introducing what must be called a change in doctrine" (p. 872). It is inescapably clear that the doctrine of the Trinity is a product of the fourth century and represents a radical departure from the past. The evolution of this doctrine, which was a process filled with confusion and continuous re-formulation and re-thinking, does not sound like the workings of the Holy Spirit. It was the product of human thinking rather than a spirit led process. Hanson was perceptive enough to realize that "a change in doctrine" occurred. A new foundation was being laid in the fourth century. Christianity was being reinvented, starting with a new doctrine of God.
Portrait of Athanasius
Hanson wrote an entire chapter on the behavior of Athanasius. He spent thirty-four pages evaluating the
character of this fourth century archbishop of Alexandria, Egypt. Hanson rightly notes that "the idealization of Athanasius in the interests of hagiography" was unrealistic. The archbishop's favorable reputation was reevaluated in the twentieth century and found wanting:
"Schwartz described Athanasius as 'an obstinate fanatic', and said that his behavior was
that of a political power broker and not that of a theologian and dogmatician. A. Piganiol,
the eminent French historian, throughout the fourth volume of his L' Empire chretien
evinces a strong prejudice against Athanasius, accusing him of organizing pogroms.
Barnes, in similar vein, charges him with organizing 'an ecclesiastical mafia', and adds
'like a modern gangster, he evoked widespread mistrust, proclaimed total innocence -
and usually succeeded in evading conviction on specific charges'. Klein in his book on
Constantius II points to Athanasius stirring up trouble wherever he went on his return
from his first exile, to his instant resumption of high-handed methods against his
opponents on returning from his second exile" (p. 240).
Hanson mentions an evaluation of Athanasius from an Arian perspective. "Philostorgius represents him as arrogant and inflexible, very ready to resort to violence and even to murder, no respecter of law and
unscrupulous in pursuing his own ends, but does so in fairly moderate language. His testimony is consequently all the more worth considering" (p. 241). Thus, the dark side of Athanasius begins to emerge. The man who supposedly saved the church from Arianism seems more like a theological thug than a saint. Hanson gathers even more evidence against him:
"Athanasius' abuse of his opponents, even allowing for what he had suffered at their hands,
sometimes reaches the point of hysteria. In the letters which he wrote to the church of
Alexandria and the churches of the Mareotis after the Council of Serdica in 343 he seems
determined to compensate for the Eastern bishops having failed to excommunicate Gregory
his rival in Alexandria by particular violent denigration of him, and in his De Sententia
Dionysii he tries to buttress a weak case by more than usual ferocious language about his
opponent; amidst a chapter consisting of sheer abuse devoid of argument, he reaches a
climax of vituperation: 'who could possibly then call these, whose leader is evil, Christians,
and not rather agents of the devil?' In one of his Festal Letters, while formally urging his
flock not to indulge in hate, he expresses a venomous hatred of Jews and Arians" (p. 243).
It becomes evident that Athanasius was a religious gangster who employed the worst sort of methods against his opponents. His behavior towards the Melitians is despicable. Hanson mentions "the list of Melitian charges against Athanasius given us by Sozomenus: causing division and disturbance in his diocese, preventing people entering churches, murders and imprisonments and undeserved beatings and woundings" (p. 254). Hanson finds "Athanasius behaving like an employer of thugs hired to intimidate his enemies (p. 254). The true portrait of this Alexandrian archbishop is anything but positive and the glowing tributes of his friends and supporters are a pack of historical lies. The champion of the Trinity was a criminal whose Christianity is as questionable as his tactics.
Hanson notes an important source: "The evidence of papyrus 1914, Bell remarks, makes it certain that the charges of violence and unscrupulous behavior in his see made against Athanasius at Caesarea in 334, at Tyre in 335, at Serdica in 343 and many times thereafter were not baseless" (p. 254). He summarizes by saying that "the charge against him at Tyre was the unscrupulous use of strong-arm methods against his opponents, and that charge as a general accusation, whatever may have been said about individual incidents, was abundantly justified. We can see by virtue of historical hindsight that Athanasius in following this policy set an evil example to his successors of the use of force and intrigue" (p. 255). It is abundantly clear that Athanasius completely lost his credibility as a Christian and that makes his anti-subordinationist theology even more suspect.
I seriously doubt that God uses unscrupulous characters like Athanasius to formulate true doctrines. The New Testament writers were men of righteous character who never employed violence to enforce doctrine. Athanasius' evil behavior cast a dark shadow of suspicion upon him. We can no longer assume that the champion of the Trinity had God on his side.
Hanson continues his comments on Athanasius: "We can now see why, for at least twenty years after 335, no Eastern bishop would communicate with Athanasius. He had been justly convicted of disgraceful behavior in his see. His conviction had nothing to do with doctrinal issues. No church could be expected to tolerate behavior like this on the part of one of its bishops" (p. 255).
When the council of Tyre condemned Athanasius, removed him as archbishop of Alexandria and excommunicated him from the church, that should have been the end of the matter, but this conniving criminal continued to stir up trouble wherever he went. In 337, with the death of Constantine, exiled bishops were allowed to return to their sees. Athanasius made his triumphant entry into Alexandria that every year. In 338, opposition against him was renewed. Arians under the leadership of Eusebius of Nicomedia strongly objected to his reinstatement as archbishop. Hanson correctly notes that "after all, Athanasius had been formally deposed by a properly constituted synod on charges which could hardly be refuted. It was against all church order and tradition that he should be readmitted to his see on the bare word of an Emperor who did not even have any jurisdiction in Egypt" (p. 266). I will spare readers any further details of the continuing intrigues and evil activities of this archbishop. Suffice to say that the accumulated evidence is sufficient to warrant a condemnation of Athanasius.
While Athanasius possessed considerable skill as a theologian, he often suffered from muddled and confused thinking. Hanson provides an example of the archbishop at his theological worst:
""Athanasius devotes virtually the whole Book II of the Orationes contra Arianos to the text
which was considered by all sides to be crucial for the subject, Proverbs 8:22ff. We shall
not here follow through the devious windings of his attempts to prove that the obvious in
not true. His basic insight that the Son of God cannot be created we can readily allow. His
explanations that the passages in the Bible which appear to say that he is created, and
above all this text in Proverbs, which was in the fourth century fought over by the
theologians as in the Iliad the Greeks and Trojans fight over the body of Patroclus, are
sometimes ingenious but almost always unsound" (p. 434).
The tortured explanations offered by Athanasius are enough to trigger a theological headache. He insists that the Father is the origin or cause of the Son but claims that the Son has eternally existed. Hanson remarks that "in fact, it is doubtful whether the word 'cause' can have any meaning, when applied to two eternally existing beings" (p. 435). If the Father and the Son have eternally existed, then one cannot cause the other. That would mean that the Father is not in fact a father. Thus, the dangerous implications of the doctrine of the Trinity become clear. It robs God of his fatherhood and makes the two divine being more like eternally existing brothers. Athanasius sowed the wind and reaped a whirlwind of false theology.
Hanson further illustrates the confused thinking of Athanasius. He writes that the archbishop "makes effort to avoid Sabellianism. The Father and the Son are One, he says, 'but not in such a way as One is named twice (i.e. has two names, Father and Son) nor that the same is sometimes Father and sometimes Son', Everything that can be said of the Father can also be said of the Son, except that he is not named Father. But this is of course a very inadequate explanation" (p. 444). It appears more like the hopeless explanation of a man trapped in a false theology. By making these two divine persons one being, Athanasius was eliminating any possibility of a real father-son relationship. The same being cannot be both father and son. In order for a begettal to take place and a father-son relationship to exist, the Father must be a separate being from the Son. Because a being cannot beget itself, the doctrine of the Trinity is a denial that the Father beget the Son. The more Athanasius tried to explain the Trinity, the more he disproved it. His concept of God became a theological dead end.
Hanson describes Athanasius' doctrine of the incarnation as space-suit Christology: "Just as the astronaut, in order to operate in a part of the universe where there is no air and where he has to experience weightlessness, puts on an elaborate space suit which enables him to live and act in this new, unfamiliar environment, so the logos puts on a body which enabled him to behave as a human being among human beings. But his relation to his body is no closer than that of an astronaut to his space suit" (p. 448). Even though the logos became flesh, Athanasius claims that the logos was "incapable of human experience" and remained unaffected by the things that are peculiar to flesh and body. According to him, the suffering of the body did not affect the logos. But this dichotomy between the divine logos and the flesh of Jesus can hardly be justified by scripture. We know that Jesus, the divine logos, learned by the things he suffered. Hanson points out that Athanasius "will not admit that Jesus Christ is 'alterable'. Once again, his failure to recognize the existence of a human mind in Jesus lands him in an absurd and impossible situation...he was in effect saying that Jesus Christ was not human" (p. 449). Should we trust a theologian like Athanasius to determine the correct doctrine of God when his Christology is neither biblical nor rational?
Athanasius' Christology becomes even more problematic when viewed in the context of the atonement. Hanson describes the disastrous effect that Athanasius' theory of the incarnation has upon Christ's atoning sacrifice:
"One of the curious results of this theology of the Incarnation is that it almost does away
with a doctrine of the atonement. Of course, Athanasius believes in the Atonement, in
Christ's death as saving, but he cannot really explain why Christ should have died. When
in chapters 19 and following of the De Incarnatione he begins trying to explain the
necessity of Christ's death, he can only present a series of puerile reasons unworthy of
the rest of his treatise. The fact is that his doctrine of the Incarnation has almost
swallowed up any doctrine of the Atonement, has rendered it unnecessary" (p. 450).
Hanson says that "even though we may not go quite as far as Harnack when he declared of Athanasius' doctrine of the Incarnation that 'every feature which recalls the historic Jesus of Nazareth was erased', we must conclude that whatever else the Logos incarnate is in Athanasius' account of him, he is not a human being" (p. 451). After studying Athanasius' Christology, our confidence in his theological ability completely evaporates.
Examples of Athanasius' crippled theology abound. Hanson mentions that "in coping with the Arian ascription of weakness and fear to Christ, when he has to cope with the awkward text in Jn 12:27 'my soul is troubled', he boldly equates 'soul' with 'life', ignoring the psychological difficulty of the text. Athanasius simply glosses over or ignores the prickly problem presented by the fact (which was expressly noted by the Arians) that Christ prays to the Father. Richard ends his treatment of the subject with the uncompromising words: 'It must therefore be frankly acknowledged that his [Athanasius'] authority as a theologian of the Incarnation has been exaggerated. As far as the human psychology of Christ is concerned, it evidently does not exist' (p. 452). Apparently Athanasius had trouble accepting the fact that Jesus possessed a human mind and soul. And he rejected the idea that Jesus grew
in knowledge and grace. This lame theologian spent considerable effort trying to disprove the obvious meaning of many texts. Trapped in his false concept of the Incarnation, he produced a series of absurdities that are symptomatic of a person suffering from theological insanity.
Hanson comments that when Athanasius was "compelled, in dealing with the Agony in the Garden and the Passion, to cope with the subject of Christ's human soul, he found himself in an embarrassing situation from which he could only extricate himself by a series of implausible contradictions (not 'paradoxes' as Dragas calls them): Jesus Christ was ignorant and omniscient; he suffered and did not suffer, he showed cowardice and did not show cowardice...he made no human moral decisions; he could not exercise faith nor experience temptation, the example which he gave was one of divine, not human, behavior, or, to be quite exact, not of a man but of a divine Being acting in the 'space-suit' of human flesh" (p. 646).
After outlining the main features of Athanasius' doctrine, Hanson concludes that "his theology is not without dangerous flaws and he is capable of some bad logic in the process of expounding it" (p. 457). It is difficult not to lose confidence in his theological ability. And It seems appropriate to questions his credentials as a theologian. Did Athanasius get his theological license out of a cracker jack box? Was he even qualified to formulate doctrine? Is the central mystery of the church the product of an unsound mind? I leave it to readers to decide.
What I find most objectionable about Hanson's otherwise excellent book is that after severely criticizing Athanasius for his criminal behavior and theological errors, he does an about face and concedes that the archbishop's doctrinal works are a great achievement. Is theological error a great achievement? Is doctrinal deception praiseworthy? Should Christians write books in praise of heretics? Hanson attempts to be objective by both praising and criticizing Athanasius, but does not follow the pattern of Christ and the apostles who strongly condemned false teachers. Did Paul both praise and condemn heretics? Was he objective about the Judaisers? No, not for a moment. Even Hanson admits that readers might be frustrated by his objectivity. It is troubling that he would praise Athanasius for his doctrinal achievements. Obviously, Hanson is a trinitarian who wants to salvage something from the life of a heretic. It was Athanasius who steered the church in the wrong direction and set the stage for the doctrinal apostasy of the fourth century. And even though the church is aware of his criminal activity
and dangerous theology, they continue to honor him as a saint. It makes you wonder how many saints are heretics and how many heretics are saints.
The Cappadocian Theologians
Hanson introduces the three theologians most responsible for formulating the final version of the Trinity:
"These are Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa who was one of
Basil's younger brothers...They were together decisively influential in bringing about the
final form of the doctrine of the Trinity and thereby resolving the conflict about the Christian
doctrine of God which had vexed the Church for fifty years before their day...The Cappadocians
all relied on the aid of contemporary philosophy more than either of the great theologians of the
doctrine of the Trinity who had preceded them...They had, in fact, inherited a definite tradition
of Platonic Christianity from Gregory Theodorus and beyond him from Origen" (p. 676-7).
It is hardly comforting to know that these three key figures were steeped in Platonic philosophy and relied upon the aid of contemporary paganism to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity. Hanson tells us that "Basil is aware that Plotinus had propounded a doctrine of 'three ultimate realities. Basil by no means takes over this doctrine unmodified...but that a reputable and much respected pagan philosopher had propounded a doctrine of three hypostases was of considerable advantage to theologians who were trying to commend a doctrine of God as three hypostases in one ousia" (p. 677-8). Apparently Basil sought the support of pagan philosophy to sell the idea of three hypostases.
Rather than becoming immersed in the details of how the Cappadocian theologians completed the doctrine of the Trinity, I would like to point out the absurdities in their thinking. Roger Olson informs us that Basil the Great attempted to refute the accusation that the Trinity is tritheism. He quotes Basil as saying: "My statement, then, is this. That which is spoken of in a special and peculiar manner is indicated by the name of the hypostasis...This then is the hypostasis, or 'under-standing;' not the indefinite conception of the essence or substance, which, because what is signified in general, finds no 'standing,' but the conception which by means of the expressed peculiarities given standing and circumspection to the general and uncircumscribed" (p. 184). This statement is as dense as a black hole and utterly incomprehensible. Even a genius could not unpack the meaning of that gibberish. Basil seems to be suffering from theological confusion. I think you will agree that his statement is one of the most ridiculous pieces of theology ever written. How can we possibly trust a confused thinker like Basil to
define the central doctrine of Christianity?
Gregory of Nyssa was a rather unusual person. Olson tells us that "Gregory had a strong mystical bent and experienced remarkable dreams and visions and spiritual experiences that transcended intellectual explanation" (p. 179). His ideas had a profound impact upon the final version of the Nicene-Constantinople creed. Perhaps that is one reason why the Trinity contains strong mystical elements. Olson informs us that "Gregory spent much of his time reading and studying both scripture and the writing of the Platonists and Neo-Platonists, those mystical pagan philosophers whose beliefs seemed so compatible with Christianity to many fourth and fifth century fathers" (p. 179). But it should be obvious from the writings of Platonists and Neo-Platonists that biblical Christianity is not compatible with mystical pagan philosophy. The superficial resemblances are not sufficient to establish a connection between Athens and Jerusalem. Olson comments that "Gregory of Nysaa's theological writings make
greater and more profound use of Greek philosophy than do those of the other two Cappadocian Fathers" (p. 179). What biblical justification is there for incorporating elements of mystical pagan philosophy into the doctrine of God? When you combine the light of scripture with the darkness of paganism, the result is a dead theology.
While most writers admired Gregory's thought, Hanson tell us that "Stead, on the other hand, regards Gregory as a very incompetent thinker, not particularly original, and as far as his 'technical apparatus' goes 'one receives the converse impression of total incoherence'. He is imprecise, unnecessarily verbose, self-contradictory, and adopts philosophical opinions at second-hand without criticizing them" (p. 723). A mere perusal of Gregory's writings will confirm Professor Stead's evaluation.
Hanson comments that "though in fact Gregory has fused many contemporary philosophical ideas into his doctrinal system, he is wary about acknowledging his debt to pagan philosophy and prefers to delude himself into believing that the philosophers had been anticipated in their ideas by Moses and the prophets" (p. 722). But what communion does scriptural truth have with pagan doctrine? And what is worse, whoring after false gods or false philosophies? Paganism might seem sweet when first tasted, but soon turns sour in the stomach. It is obvious from Gregory's writings that he owes a considerable debt to pagan philosophy. He created an unholy matrimony between paganism and Christianity and the result was the Trinity.
Here is another example of Gregory's stunted thinking. Hanson tells us that "Gregory begins with an unqualified account of the relation between hypostasis and ousia as the same as that between the particular, and the universal or generic...Gregory then adduces the analogy of the rainbow, in which the colours can be observed distinctly but can also be seen to be inseparable from each other. Stead criticizes the unsuitability and inadequacy of the universal and the particular for the relation of ousia with hypostasis, and he observes truly that Gregory on many occasions uses hypostasis and ousia in a variety of meanings which do not at all correspond to the meanings which they are supposed to convey when used in a Trinitarian context. Certainly the analogy of universal to particular is a very unsatisfactory analogy when we are speaking of the relation of substance to person" (p. 724). Gregory resorts to using a misleading analogy to prove a false doctrine.
Roger Olson agrees that problems exist with the Trinitarian theology of the Cappadocians. He writes that
"throughout the centuries of theology many critics have found it simply too ambiguous to accept without further clarification. When examined closely, it seems either that the Cappadocians were affirming God's oneness to the exclusion of real threeness or else affirming God's threeness to the exclusion of his oneness" (p. 194). The bottom line is that the oneness and threeness in the Trinity cannot be reconciled. Those who attempt to resolve this contradiction are forced into ambiguity.
In his chapter on the Cappadocian theologians, Hanson concludes that "they used contemporary pagan
philosophy with much greater confidence and freedom than any Christian writer before them, though it is
tendentious to imagine that they surrendered to an Hellenization of Biblical truth or contributed to a process which wrapped the original simple gospel in clouds of obscure metaphysical terms" (p. 731). But that is exactly what they did. Hanson is blind to the fact that a degree of Hellenization did take place and the doctrine of God was enveloped in a cloud of obscurity. The original simple gospel includes the doctrine of God. The Cappadocians replaced the simple doctrine that God is one person with the complex doctrine that God is three persons in one being. Without the vocabulary and concepts of pagan philosophy the doctrine of the Trinity could not have been formulated. When the Cappadocians sat at the table with pagan philosophers, they were dining with the devil.
Explanations of the Trinity
It is rather perplexing to read some of the explanations of the Trinity. Harold Brown comments: "This left the question as to how the Three can be only one God. Attempts to explain this usually fall into one of two errors: either the unity of nature is emphasized, and modalism results, or the deity of each person is stressed, in which case the danger is a kind of tritheism" (Heresies, p. 127). In other words, the Trinity cannot be explained without lapsing into modalism or tritheism. That is why I contend that the doctrine of the Trinity combines modalism and tritheism in perfect contradiction. Brown makes a telling statement: "Although it is necessary to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity in order to come to grips with its conviction concerning the person and work of Christ, it has proved impossible for Christians actually to understand the Trinity or to explain it in any comprehensive way" (p. 128). If the Trinity is impossible to explain or understand, then how did it get formulated in the first place? Brown admits that "the statement that there are three persons, each of whom is God, while God is confessed as one, simply has to be explained to some extent, as otherwise it seems to be self-contradictory and absurd" (p. 128). I am convinced that modern theologians are aware of the fact that this doctrine contradicts itself and is absurd, but are afraid to admit it openly.
Brown gives Trinitarians some advice: "The safest course for theologians to follow when dealing with the mystery of the Trinity is simply to state it, being careful not to risk getting entangled in explanations...to attempt too much more than a straightforward and simple statement is to run the risk of involving oneself in contradictions, absurdities, and errors" (p. 128). But avoiding an explanation only hides the contradictions, absurdities, and errors of the doctrine of the Trinity. Apparently, anyone who is foolhardy enough to attempt an explanation will fall into modalism or tritheism. Even Augustine came up sounding like a modalist. When you try to explain how God can be three distinct persons, it invariable leads to tritheism, and when you attempt to explain how three persons can be one being, it necessarily leads to modalism. Fourth century theologians combined tritheism with modalism and invented an impossible doctrine called the Trinity. Apparently, they decided to live with the contradictions and absurdities that it created. Brown's idea is to state the doctrine but don't try to explain it. I doubt that you would take that same advice and apply it in a case where someone asked you to explain the gospel? Do you think the
safest course would be to avoid getting entangled in explanations of the good news? I certainly hope not. A gospel that cannot be explained or understood...cannot save. Calling the Trinity a mystery is a smokescreen and avoiding an explanation makes the doctrine suspect. A superficial statement regarding the Trinity isn't sufficient to warrant a belief. Only a solid biblical exegesis can accomplish that task.
In truth, a logical and reasonable explanation of the Trinity does not exist. Every attempt descends into absurdity or contradiction. That fact should be a red flag for Christians. Why is it that the gospel can be explained and understood but the Trinity can't? Is it because the gospel is true and the Trinity false? We are not required to accept absurdities on faith or leave logic and reason outside the doors of theology. The doctrine of the Trinity is not exempt from the law of non-contradiction. Part of the problem is that most Christians do not love God with all their mind. They simply have no theological mind. Critical thinking is viewed as a sign of doubt and therefore an enemy of the faith. But questioning a doctrine to determine its truthfulness is a healthy Christian exercise. Does anyone claim perfection on doctrinal issues? God does not lead us into error, but our minds can. Theological mistakes are common. Even Augustine made gross doctrinal errors. The apostle Peter was mistaken when he separated himself from the Gentiles. Paul had to confront him and correct his theology. We don't automatically or instinctively know which doctrines are true or false. The Holy Spirit leads us into truth but does not always prevent
us from falling into error. The doubt and uncertainty surrounding the doctrine of the Trinity should provide the incentive to re-examine this doctrine in the light of scripture.
When it comes to defining the Godhead, Trinitarians create their own problems. Brown relates that "in order to say one 'ousia', 'three hypostasis' (one being, three persons) it is necessary to distinguish between the term 'ousia' and 'hypostasis', as otherwise the definition is not merely mysterious but self-contradictory. But how is one to distinguish among the three 'hypostasis' if each 'hypostasis', or one person, possesses to the full the undivided nature? If the Son is consubstantial with the Father and co-eternal with him, how does he differ from him? (p. 131). Athanasius' doctrine of consubstantiation eliminates all distinctions and makes the three persons identical. It creates the absurdity that the Father is the Son and the Son is the Father, which clearly contradicts scripture. Brown writes that "under such circumstances, how is the Son to be distinguished from the Father? If totally identical in every way, he must be the Father, which is modalism. If identical with the Father yet distinct from him, does he not appear as a second deity alongside the first" (p. 132). Is it not bewildering that Brown grasps the problem but refuses to admit that the Trinity is both modalistic and tritheistic? Trinitarians ended up embracing
what they sought to avoid.
It is not possible to maintain that God is one being without destroying the concept that God is three distinct persons. But Trinitarians want their pumpkin pie and eat it too. They fail to recognize that the Trinity contains intolerable contradictions and unbearable tensions that cannot be resolved. These Christological extremists eliminated subordinationism in order to place Jesus on an equal plane with the God that he worshipped. Then they united two separate beings into one, which no longer made it possible for the Father to be Christ's God.
According to theologian Hans Kung, the problem with the Nicene Creed was that "the more the Son was put on the same level of being with the Father and this relationship was described with natural categories, the more difficult it became to think of Jesus' distinction from God and his unity with God conceptually at the same time. In that case, all that was left was an appeal to a conceptual mystery which had neither been preached by Jesus nor witnessed to by the apostles, but which the theologians themselves had produced by transposing the biblical statements to another level" (Christianity, p. 183). But a conceptual mystery is hardly a substitute for the true doctrine of God. Kung goes on to write that "the doctrine of the Trinity became a highly demanding intellectual exercise, a kind of higher 'trinitarian mathematics' in which even theologians and preachers take little interest, but which can still be presented to reasonable people simply as a 'true mystery' which they have to accept by sacrificing their understanding" (p. 194). I do not believe that it is necessary to sacrifice understanding on the altar of doctrine or accept a trinitarian math (three equals one) that contradicts true mathematics. Faith is above
reason, but no devoid of reason.
Priest-theologian Richard McBrien regards the Trinity as "an absolute mystery in the sense that we do not understand it even after it has been revealed" (Catholicism, p. 351). Characterizing the Trinity as an absolute mystery shuts the door of understanding and settles for a state of ignorance. I am grateful that theologians did not arrive at the same conclusion regarding the gospel. What value would the gospel have if we did not understand it even after it had been revealed? How could we act on a gospel that is an absolute mystery beyond human understanding? Conversion would be impossible because the gospel would be incomprehensible. An absolute mystery like the Trinity has no value because it reveals nothing.
Roger Olson would have us believe that "it was the Arians and Sabellians and other heretics who were attempting to make the Christian belief too simple and too intelligible to human intellect by rejecting the mystery of God as one substance (being) and three distinct substances (persons). Exactly how that could be is not fully intelligible to human minds, and heresies reduced the mystery to something mundane and comprehensible and in the process robbed it of it majesty and glory" (p. 174). The sheer nonsense of that statement can only elicit a laugh. Should we criticize Arians for making the doctrine of God intelligible and comprehensible to the human mind? I think not. But Trinitarians deserve plenty of criticism for making the doctrine of God too mysterious, too complicated, and too unintelligible for humans to comprehend. The doctrine of the Trinity is an unnecessary mystery that blocks our understanding of God. It removes the simplicity and elegance from the doctrine of God. Olson has his theological wires crossed. It is the doctrine of the Trinity that robs the Father of his majesty and glory because it makes two other persons equal to him. This doctrine attempts to dethrone the Father from his position as the one absolute and ultimate God. Olson shows a complete lack of discernment and sensitivity in the way that he indiscriminately tosses around the label "heretic". Many Arians were true Christians defending the traditional doctrine of subordinationism. Would anyone in his right mind criticize Christians for making the gospel simple and intelligible? Then why criticize Arians for bringing simplicity to the doctrine of God. I challenge Olson to make the doctrine of the Trinity intelligible. If there is a simplicity in Christ, there is a simplicity in God.
The doctrine of the Trinity lacks explanatory power. The real mystery is that every attempted explanation lapses into heresy. It leads to modalism or tritheism. Thus, it cannot maintain its own orthodoxy.
Unity or Plurality in God
Now we must face the difficult and complex question: Is God an absolute unity or a compound unity? If God is an absolute unity, then God is one single person, but if God is a compound unity, then there can be "plurality or diversity within that unity". Moses said: "The Lord our God is one God" (Duet. 6:4). Michael Brown informs us that "Messianic Jews often claim that the Hebrew word for 'one' that is used here, 'echad', actually means a compound unity, while traditional Jews often argue their case as if the word meant an absolute unity" (Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Vol. 2, p. 4).
Brown, who is a Trinitarian, comments on the Hebrew word "echad" and the controversy surrounding its meaning: "Actually, 'echad' simply means 'one', exactly like our English word 'one.' While it can refer to compound unity (just as our English word can, as in one team, one couple, etc), it does not specifically refer to compound unity. On the other hand, 'echad' certainly does not refer to the concept of absolute unity, an idea expressed most clearly in the twelfth century by Moses Maimonides, who asserted that the Jewish people must believe that God is 'yachid', and 'only' one" (p. 4). Brown finishes his thought by saying that "there is not a single verse anywhere in the bible that clearly or directly states that God is an absolute unity" (p. 4). But the point is irrelevant because it isn't necessary for the Bible to make such a statement in order for it to be true. I could follow Brown's reasoning by stating that not a single verse anywhere in the Bible clearly and directly states that God is a Trinity. But the statement proves
nothing. Some doctrines are implied rather than directly stated in scripture. The New Testament implies that God is an absolute unity. What scripture implies is equally true to what it clearly states. Just as it isn't necessary for the word "Trinity" to be in the Bible for the doctrine to be true, it isn't necessary for the Bible to directly state that "God is an absolute unity" for it to be true. If it can be established from scripture that God is one person, then he is an absolute unity.
If Brown is correct that the Hebrew word 'echad' does not specifically refer to compound unity or absolute unity, then it becomes irrelevant to the discussion. He states that "to say that Yahweh, the God of Isreal, is 'echad' does not tell us anything about his essential nature - whether he is one in one or ten in one. In fact, this really wasn't an issue at all, since every God was one" (p. 5). But there are scriptures in which the word 'echad' can refer to one person alone. In I Chronicles 29:1, Kind David said to the whole assembly: "My son Solomon, the one whom God has chosen, is young and inexperienced". Another version says: "God has chosen my son Solomon alone". Brown comments: "So, 'echad' can mean 'one' in the sense of 'that one alone' (p. 6). He appears to contradict his earlier statement that "echad certainly does not refer to the concept of absolute unity". But a human being is an absolute unity. So, if 'echad' can refer to the absolute unity of a human, it can also refer to the absolute unity of God? And if 'echad' does not tell us whether there is "one in one or ten in one", then we cannot assume that God is not "one
in one". In other words, we cannot preclude the possibility that when 'echad' is used in reference to God, it does not mean absolute unity. It appears that Brown is placing artificial limitations on the meaning of the word 'echad'. If this word can mean "that one alone", then the expression "God is one God" can mean "God is one God alone". It implies that God is one in one, not three in one. Thus, God would be an absolute unity not a compound unity.
Several passages in the Old Testament seem to suggest the plurality of God. In the first verse of Genesis, the word for God is in the plural form. It says that "In the beginning Elohim created the heavens and the earth". The word "elohim" is the plural form of "el", which is the generic word for "god". But does this plurality prove the Trinity? We notice that this plurality is reiterated in Genesis 1:26: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness". And in the tower of Babel incident God says "let us go down and confuse their tongues" (Gen. 11:17). Trinitarians are quick to point out these verses as proof that a triune God was involved in the creation and other historical events.
But the following comment by Michael Brown should give them pause:
"Does all this indicate that God is a compound unity? The response of the rabbi, as far back
as the Talmud (b. sanhedrin 38b), has been to point out that whenever the plural form is
used, it is immediately followed by the singular. So, the scriptures often use a plural noun
for God (like 'elohim') with a singular verb (like 'bara', "God created' in Gen 1:1), or after
saying, 'let us make man' (plural) the Bible then says, 'so God created (singular)" (p. 9).
Brown claims that in the Ancient Near East "it was common to refer to the deity in the compound plural, and when speaking of an owner or master, it was often the rule to speak of him in such terms" (p. 9). In Genesis 24, Abraham's servant addresses his master in the plural "adonim", which literally means "lords". Therefore, the plural form can be a reference to one person. Yahweh describes himself as "the Gods of gods and the Lords of lords" (Duet. 10:17).And the psalmist address God as "Yahweh our Lords" (Psalm 8:1). The question remains: Do the plural nouns used for God indicate a compound unity? Brown reflects on this"
"But before you conclude from all this that plural nouns for God have no bearing on the
question of his unity, consider this simple truth: Hebrew, along with other Semitic
languages, sometimes expressed greatness, supremacy, exaltation, majesty, and
fullness by means of compound plural nouns. Plurality could express prominence,
ownership, or divinity, all with reference to a single person or single deity. This means
that the very concept of 'compound unity' or 'compound plurality' was part of the
language of the Tanakh. Such concepts would not be foreign to the biblical mind. So,
while these references to God or Lord in the plural do not in any way prove Trinitarian
beliefs, they are certainly in perfect harmony with everything we are trying to say here,
namely, that in some way the Lord's unity is complex" (p. 10).
Brown's vague statement that "the Lords unity is complex" hardly elicits confidence. In many respects, the material he presents disproves his own argument and offers evidence that plural nouns do not imply compound unity or compound plurality. What they seem to suggest is "plurality of majesty", but the concept has taken quite a beating from Trinitarians and is considered a late arrival on the theological scene. Suffice to say that when scripture uses a plural noun for God followed by a singular verb, it does not suggest the God is a plurality.
The New Testament solves the mystery of how many persons are in God. Several scriptures indicate that there is only one person in God and that person is the Father. In John 17:3, Jesus addressed his Father and said: "This is eternal life that they might know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent". Even Brown admits that "Jesus himself taught that his Father was the one and only God" (p. 11). The apostle Paul tells us specifically how many persons constitute God: "To us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him, and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we in him" (I Cor. 8:6). Both Jesus and Paul clearly identify the person called the Father as the one and only true God. Paul carefully separates the one God from the one Lord. Based on this information we can conclude that the plural noun "elohim" refers to one person.
Scripture and the Trinity
In the preface of his book "The Trinity in the New Testament", Arthur Wainwright admits that "there is no formal statement of the doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament". Why is this critical doctrine absent from scripture? The sixty year war between Trinitarians and Arians attests to its importance. The Trinity became the defining doctrine of orthodoxy and those who rejected it were labeled heretics and excommunicated from the church. But scripture is devoid of trinitarian verses. The silence of the Bible on the subject of the Trinity is deafening. One can search the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation and not find one verse which explicitly says that there are three distinct persons in one God. This unscriptural idea was expanded and completed in the fourth century by the Cappadocian Fathers who decided to incorporate Jesus and the Holy Spirit into the Godhead. But it only creates the illusion of one God. If the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons, then there are three distinct Gods. You cannot maintain the distinction of three persons while dissolving them into one being. Trinitarians fail to realize that one being cannot contain three distinct persons because a distinction creates division and
separation. If the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons, then the Godhead is divided and cannot be one. Thus, the Cappadocians failed to solve the problem of the Godhead. By ignoring the scriptural solution, they destroyed true monotheism.
Wainwright makes a rather candid statement: "It is often supposed that the doctrine of the Trinity arose after the New Testament had been written, and that it is a speculative doctrine, which is not essential to the Christian message" (vii). He then claims to present evidence that the doctrine of the Trinity was addressed in scripture and that the problem of the Trinity was answered in New Testament times. And yet the consensus of scholarship is that the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated long after the New Testament was written. This doctrine is, in fact, speculation on the Godhead that went beyond the boundaries of scripture. Creating the illusion of three distinct persons in one being and imposing it upon the church by using the political power of the Emperor is hardly the way the Holy Spirit works. The true monotheism of the Bible was discarded and replaced with a three in one formula called the Trinity. This confusing doctrine creates a false image of the Godhead. Jesus and the Jews understood the true doctrine of God. Christ specifically stated that "the Father is greater than I". He elevated the Father above himself and called the Father "my God and your God". Jesus had a God that he worshipped and
obeyed. It would be ridiculous to claim that Jesus is the same God that he worships. The doctrine of the Trinity insults our theological intelligence and dumbfounds our rational mind. This pseudo-godhead was concocted by questionable theologians who abandoned scripture, reason, and rationality.
In spite of his pro-Trinitarians position, Wainwright admits that the problem of the Trinity "has never been
satisfactorily answered, and that the most enduring statements of the doctrine do not give complete answers to the problem but define the limits of discussion" (p. 5). But how useful is a statement that merely limits the discussion rather than clearly defining the Godhead? Placing parameters around the discussion only creates a theological straight jacket. And if the Nicene Creed merely serves to limit the discussion, then why is it being used as a litmus test of orthodoxy? The doctrine of the Trinity has little value because it does not provide satisfactory answers to the question of the Godhead. But the true doctrine of monotheism provides complete answers that satisfy the requirements of theology and reason.
In the introduction to his book, Wainwright makes a rather confusing statement that leaves reason scratching its head:
"It will be argued that the problem of the Trinity was in the minds of certain New Testament writers,
and that they made an attempt to answer it. None of their writings, however, was written specifically
to deal with it, and most of the signs that the writer tackled the problem are incidental. There was
no elaborate or systematic answer to the problem" (p. 4).
Perhaps the signs that the New Testament writers tackled the problem reside in Wainwrights imagination. It puts a strain on credulity to argue that the problem of the Trinity was in the minds of New Testament writers. How could a doctrine formulated in the fourth century be on the minds of first century writers? The reason the problems were not answered by the apostles is because the doctrine of the Trinity did not exist in the first century. The apostles already had the Old Testament doctrine of God and no changes were necessary. Had there been a crisis over this doctrine, it would have been clearly addressed. Any new doctrine of God would have been given top priority and spelled out in scripture. But the New Testament shows no evidence of a dispute over the doctrine of God, nor does it make any changes in the Jewish understanding of monotheism. Wainwright is manufacturing a problem that didn't even exist in the minds of the apostles. Had there been any major changes in the doctrine of God, the
New Testament writers would have provided elaborate and detailed answers. The idea of three persons in one God would have been a theological earthquake to first century Jews. Had the apostles taught the doctrine of the Trinity, they would have been accused of blasphemy and stoned to death. But no such accusations were ever made.
If the doctrine of the Trinity had been revealed to the apostles, it would have been boldly proclaimed and given a proper explanation. Any monumental change like this would require a major address to Jewish Christians. In the first volume of his "Dogmatics", Emil Brunner states that "no apostle would have dreamt of thinking that there are three divine persons, whose mutual relations and paradoxical unity are beyond our understanding" (p. 226). The concept of the Trinity would have been foreign to first century Jews and rejected outright. Jesus never gave the slightest hint that a Trinity existed. He held traditional Jewish beliefs about God. Monotheism means that God is one person. Neither Jesus nor the apostles ever departed from the Jewish doctrine of God.
Wainwright quotes fifteen New Testament passages and then tells his readers that "in eight of the fifteen
passages God is explicitly distinguished from Jesus Christ" (p. 15). He goes on to remark that "the evidence shows that God was regarded as one, that the one God was believed to be the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Statements of this nature hardly seem to provide fruitful ground for the growth of a doctrine of the Trinity" (p. 42). But these eight passages provide solid ground for the true doctrine of monotheism because they explicitly distinguish God from Jesus.
Trinitarians quote various passages from scripture which seem to indicate that Jesus is God. They often cite a statement by Paul which says "of whom is Christ as concerning the flesh, who is overall, God blessed forever, amen" (Rom. 9:5). But this is a very controversial passage. Scholars are divided over whether it proves Paul believed that Jesus is God. The problem is that there were no punctuation marks in the original text. Thus, it is difficult to know where punctuation would be appropriate. If there is no full stop until the end of the passage, then it can be conceded that Jesus is being called God. But if a full stop is placed after "flesh" or "above all", then the verse does not imply that Jesus is God. Therefore, a passage like this is hardly decisive in determining if Paul believed that Jesus is God. His reluctance to call Jesus God is evident in the rest of his writings. Paul's monotheism was so embedded in his mind that it is doubtful he would identify Jesus as God.
Wainwright comments that if Paul "wished to introduce this clear proclamation of the divinity of Christ in his epistles, why did he not do so more often? Why did he not expand and explain the idea, instead of thrusting it forward abruptly and passing immediately to another theme". He goes on to say that "while Paul may have described Christ as God in other writings, which have not been preserved, the assumption that there were unknown epistles does not account for the abruptness with which he leaves his remarkable statement of the divinity of Christ undeveloped and unexplained" (p. 58). Wainwright seems to miss the most obvious explanation which is that Paul was not describing Christ as God. One would think that if Paul was claiming that Jesus is God, he would explain this new doctrine to his readers. It would have enormous consequences for theology. And for first century Jews, it would have been a revolutionary idea. The assertion that Paul would mention this thought in passing and leave it underdeveloped and unexplained is hardly credible. He would have known the consequences
of such a teaching and the accusations it would have aroused. Even Jewish Christians would have demanded an explanation.
Trinitarians offer another verse from Paul which reads "but unto the son he says, they throne, Oh God, is forever and ever" (Heb. 1:8). The author of Hebrews is quoting from the Septuagint version of Psalm 45:6. Wainwright informs us that "Peake thinks that the most serious objection to the first translation is that the use of 'theos' and the definite article with reference to Christ is without parallel in the New Testament" (p. 59). He adds that "Westcott suggests that a description of Christ as God would obscure the thought of the passage as the intension of the writer is to stress the eternal nature of the dominion of Christ in contrast to the mutability of the angels" (p. 59). It doesn't seem plausible that Paul would only mention the divinity of Christ in passing and not pause to offer an explanation. But the rest of the book is silent on the subject. Why would Paul concentrate on other matters rather than explaining and developing the new revelation that Jesus is God. Perhaps it is because he never believed it in the first place. Wainwright comments that "scholars claim that it is improbable or even impossible that Paul could identify Jesus with God because such an identification is inconsistent with the rest of
his thought" (p. 56). In passage after passage Paul explicitly differentiates Jesus from God. This deliberate differentiation shows a marked effort to maintain that the Father alone is God.
It seems like every verse Trinitarians use to supposedly prove that Jesus is God is controversial and provides indefinite results. A famous example is in the gospel of John. He wrote that "in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God" (John 1:1). If this translation is correct, then it would strongly suggest that Jesus is God. Wainwright comments that "it has often been argued, however, that in this clause 'theos', since it occurs without an article, is adjectival and means 'divine' (p. 60). He goes on to point out that verse one and two "present problems because 'theos' without an article occurs between two examples of 'theos' with the article" (p. 60). He argues that "the article is absent because 'theos' is predicative". Others like Origen favor the view that "theos" is adjectival. If they are correct, then it should read "and the word was divine". While I am inclined to accept the latter view, it is hardly conclusive. It should be pointed out that the meaning of the verse would be difficult to discern if it is translated "and the word was God" because it appears to create a paradox. How can the word be with God and be God? In other words, how can you be the person you are with? That seems impossible.
The translation "and the word was divine" resolves the paradox. Thus, John's prologue does not provide definite proof that Jesus is God. The most we can safely derive from this verse is that Jesus is divine.
Trinitarians cite another verse in John's gospel to prove that Jesus is God. John writes that "the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him" (John 1:18). If these are the original words, then there would be little doubt that Christ is God. But Wainwright points out that "there are variant readings of the text. 'Only begotten God' is supported by weightier authorities. 'Only begotten Son' is found in the received text. Its earliest support is in the Western Text and it is also found in the Old Syriac version. 'Only begotten' without a noun occurs in some codices of the Vulgate and in the Diatessaron" (p. 61). Wainwright mentions that "Lagrange and Bousset favor the simple 'only begotten' and argue that the nouns were added later. Barrett claims that 'Son' seems to be imperatively demanded by the following clause, and is in conformity with Johannine usage'" (p. 61). But which reading is the original remains unresolved. Thus, this verse cannot be used to prove that Jesus is God.
One of the strongest proof texts that Jesus is God is found in the gospel of John. When doubting Thomas beheld the resurrected Jesus, he was moved to say "my Lord and my God" (John 20:28). While it seems apparent that Thomas was addressing Jesus, Wainwright informs us that "Theodore of Mopsuestia suggests that this is a thanksgiving which Thomas addressed to the Father" (p. 62). That could well be the case. Wainwright comments that "Thomas may have actually uttered those words. But it is probable that the title 'theos' was not given to Christ immediately after the resurrection. 'Jesus is Lord', not 'Jesus is God', was the main confession of the primitive church" (p. 63). He notes that the words "my Lord and my God' "may have taken shape under the influence of liturgical needs" (p. 63). Thus, we can seriously questions whether Thomas would have called Jesus God. And while the context suggests that he spoke those words to Jesus, we cannot know that for certain.
A passage in the Pastoral Epistles appears to indicate that Jesus is God. Paul wrote about "the blessed hope, and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13). Another possible translation would be "looking for the blessed hope, and glorious appearing of the great God, and our Savior Jesus Christ". And a third translation favored by Hort reads: "Looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, which glory is Jesus Christ". Wainwright asks the question: "As Christ is not called God in any other part of the Pastoral Epistles, how is the presence of this passage in the Epistle of Titus to be explained?" (p. 64). His answer is that a unique statement in a small collection should not come as a surprise. But that hardly does justice to the question. The absence of any other statement that Jesus is God should alert us to the possibility that the translation is faulty. Just as Paul in his other epistles carefully separates God the Father from our Lord Jesus Christ, a separation of the words "great God' from "our Savior Jesus Christ" seems appropriate.
Trinitarians quote another verse from the writings of the apostle Peter, which they claim confirms that fact that Jesus is God. Wainwright suggests the possible translation: "In the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Pet. 1:1). But the King James translation is significantly different. It reads: "Through the righteousness of God and our Savior Jesus Christ". Thus, the Received Text separates the words "righteousness of God" from "our Savior Jesus Christ". Wainwright mentions that "the reference to God has been omitted by some of the versions and by the uncial P" (p. 65). If Peter believed that Jesus is God, why would he leave such a significant truth unexplained? Surely he would have made an effort to explain this earthshaking truth to monotheistic Jews.
It is significant that there are only seven verses in the entire New Testament which supposedly prove that Jesus is God and none of them are accompanied with an explanation. The paucity of information about Jesus being God makes the belief suspect. It is evident that the doctrine of the Trinity hangs from a few flimsy threads. Both the translation and interpretation of these seven verses are seriously disputed and therefore cannot provide solid proof that Jesus is God. In fact, there is no scriptural evidence that Jesus is God. Even Wainwright admits that "the writers of the New Testament seem to have been reluctant to commit to writing the confession that Jesus is God" (p. 68). I submit that the reason they never committed it to writing is because they never believed it in the first place.
Arthur Wainwright comments on "passages that provide evidence of doubtful value". He writes that "there are also several passages in which it could be argued that Christ is being called God, but in which the arguments are not convincing" (p. 69). Because Wainwright is a Trinitarian, his words carry even more weight when arguing that a particular verse does not prove that Jesus is God. He cites second Thessalonians 2:12, which can be translated "according to the grace of our God and Lord Jesus Christ". The second translation, which is from the received text, reads: "According to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ". Wainwright notes that "the second translation has been preferred by the majority of translators and commentators. The chief reason in its favor is that the phrase 'Lord Jesus Christ' occurs so often in Paul's epistles that it would be quite normal to introduce it, even in this context, without a definite article" (p. 69). He concludes that "the second translation, in which Jesus Christ is not said to be God, is to be preferred" (p. 70).
Next Wainwright cites Colossians 2:2, which could be translated: "that they might know the mystery of God Christ". But then he offers a better translation which reads: "that they might know the mystery of God, even Christ". He explains that "Paul means that Christ is the mystery of God, not that he is God".(p. 70). It is refreshing that a trinitarian like Wainwright admits that this verse does not prove that Jesus is God. He is to be praised for his fair treatment of the subject.
Regarding John 17:3, Wainwright tells us that "Bousset suggests that this should be translated in such a way as to imply that Jesus is God" (p. 70). Bousett's translation reads: "And this is eternal life, that they should know thee as the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou didst send, as the only true God". But Wainwright disagrees with Boussets translation and says that "the only satisfactory translation of the verse is that which treats God and Jesus Christ as separate persons" (p. 71). That is exactly what the Received Text does. It reads: "This is eternal life, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent". Jesus recognized that the Father is the only person who is truly God. Otherwise, he would have said: "That they might know us, the only true God". But he excludes himself and identifies the Father God as the sole person who is God.
Another verse which might give the impression that Jesus is God is I John 5:20. The Revised Version translates it: "And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son, Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life". Wainwright points out that "some scholars think that 'this' refers to Christ'" (p. 71). But he disagrees with that assessment and offers his own translation: "We are in him that is true, by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life". He concludes that "in this verse , therefore, Jesus is not called God" (p. 71).
Christ's brother introduces his epistle with the words "James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ". It could also be translated "James, a servant of God and Lord Jesus Christ". Wainwright comments that "either translation could be defended linguistically. But since the author says little about Christ in the epistle, there is no overwhelming evidence in favor of the translation which says that Jesus is God. It is possible that Jesus is described as the divine glory in Jas. 2:1, but there is not sufficient evidence available to use this verse as support for the belief that New Testament Christians called Jesus God" (p. 72).
Now the question is: Should Matthew 1:23 be translated "God with us" or "God is with us". Wainwright says that "the translation 'God with us' implies that Jesus is God. The translation 'God is with us', however, may mean no more than that the coming of Jesus is an instance of God's activity among men. Because of it ambiguity this passage cannot be used as evidence that Jesus was called God" (p. 72).
The final passage I want to bring to readers attention is I Timothy 1:17, which reads: "Now unto the King eternal, incorruptible, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever, Amen". Some consider this verse a doxology to Christ, but Wainwright disagrees. He points out that "the doxology of I Timothy 6:15, in which similar language occurs, is given to God the Father" (p. 73). He goes on to say that "the language of the passage itself suggests that the King in I Tim.1:17 is distinguished from Jesus Christ of I Tim.1:16. In all probability, then, this doxology is given to God, and does not refer to Christ" (p. 72).
Having examined the fourteen texts used to prove the Trinity, I conclude that because of the uncertainty of the texts, the ambiguity of the language, and the difficulty of interpretation, these texts do not provide solid nor sufficient evidence that Jesus is God and therefore offer no support for the doctrine of the Trinity.
The Weight of Greek Grammar
The problems associated with Greek grammar and punctuation further complicate the debate. Experts disagree on how and when to apply certain rules. And the exceptions to every rule make matters even more difficult. Allow me to illustrate the problem using one verse in scripture. Paul said: "In order that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Thes. 1:12). Most English versions add the article "the" in front of the word "Lord" and translate it "our God and the Lord Jesus Christ", thus making a distinction between God and Christ. Experts disagree on whether Paul is referring to one or two persons. And they disagree on whether the Granville Sharp rule applies to this verse. Robert Morley comments:
"The Granville sharp rule states that when two nouns of the same case are separated by the
word 'kai', with the first noun having the article in front of it, but the second noun without the
article, only one person is in view and is, thus, being described by both nouns. In contrast,
when both nouns have a definite article, then two persons are in view....but does this rule
apply when the nouns in question are names of titles such as 'theos'? Some commentators
have answered in the negative" (The Trinity, p. 342).
The question is: Does Greek grammar dictate theology or does theology dictate Greek grammar? Are theologians required to make a "strict grammatical interpretation of the Greek text" or are there legitimate exceptions? It is not always apparent when the Granville Sharp rule applies. Therefore, we are faced with "exegetical uncertainty" concerning this verse. Morey states that "we, thus, arrive at an interesting situation where the grammarians disagree with the majority of commentators who mainly for theological reasons do not want to follow a strict grammatical interpretation of the Greek text" (p. 343). In this case, I am willing to "bow before the grammar of the text and admit that it calls Christ God". I have no theological axe to grind on this issue. I agree that Jesus is called God in the New Testament. We must not ignore grammar and allow our theological presuppositions to control the interpretation of a verse. On the other hand, because there are exceptions to the Granville Sharp rule and it is not always obvious when the application is appropriate, we must not allow grammar to control theology.
I realize that by setting aside theological bias and following the rules of Greek grammar, a strong case can be made that Jesus is called God. Trinitarians are correct on this point. I believe that Unitarians are wrong to insist the Jesus is not called God. They are fearful that it is but one more step toward declaring that Jesus is God. But it is better to concede the point and argue against the doctrine of the Trinity on another basis. Most experts on Greek grammar, including Unitarian Joseph Thayer, agree that Jesus is called God. By presenting old arguments that have been invalidated, Unitarians are defeating themselves. It is disingenuous to invent an escape hatch out of every scripture which calls Jesus God. Morey points out that "some have gone so far as to rewrite the Greek text, to rearrange the words, and to invent novel punctuation without any manuscript evidence whatsoever" (p. 335). But even though Unitarians are wrong on this point, it does not invalidate their entire argument against the Trinity. Avoidance or denial of the fact that Jesus is called God weakens their case and lowers respect for their position. Better to concentrate on the solid scriptural evidence that disproves the doctrine of the Trinity.
The apostles lived in a world where mortal rulers were declared to be god and worshipped as god. It seems perfectly reasonable that Christians would place Jesus over and above these human gods. If the title "god" was place upon mere mortals, how much more does Christ deserve it? To deny Jesus the title of god would be an insult to his majesty because it would place him below others in title and rank. But Trinitarians are not satisfied with mere titles. They insist the Jesus is God in the full sense of the word and accuse others of watering down the concept of deity. But, If humans can be called "gods" and Satan legitimately carries the title "god of this world", then the Greek word "theos" must be sufficiently flexible to include those who are less than true God. When Jesus said: "Ye are gods", he was not suggesting that humans are equal to God or the same being as God. Surely it is obvious from scripture that a person can be called god and not actually be God. We should not confuse the title of deity with deity itself. Because this subject is taken up in greater detail in another chapter, I will limit the discussion here. Suffice to say that while Jesus is called god, that does not necessarily mean that he is God.
While I have great respect for experts on Greek grammar, I hesitate at the thought of allowing grammar to dictate theology. The author of the book of Revelation flagrantly violates the rules of Greek grammar. He seems to follow his own rules and the grammatical irregularities appear to be deliberate. Apparently sacrificing correct grammar for the sake of theology is acceptable to God.
The New Trinitarians
In his book "Jesus and the Father" (Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity), Kevin Gilles (Thd, Tubingen University), vicar of St. Michaels Church in North Carlton, Australia, wrote that "any suggestion that the divine three are ordered hierarchically, or divided in being, work, or authority, is unthinkable" (p. 18). Does it not seem presumptuous to state dogmatically that it is unthinkable to suggest that God is ordered hierarchically? It does not surprise me that some Trinitarians consider him a "dangerous enemy to be opposed". A number of Protestant theologians advocate that God is a hierarchy and that Jesus is subordinate to the Father. Gilles is adamantly opposed to their teachings and thinks they have gone in the wrong direction. He views himself as the great defender of the faith. But defending a false doctrine is hardly an act of heroism.
The "newly worded post-1970's doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son" has aroused the anger of traditionalists. It is considered the resurrection of an old Arian heresy. This "reworked and reformulated conservative evangelical doctrine of the Trinity" has, according to Gilles, unintentionally "embraced fundamental aspects of the Arian heresy in its varied forms". At least he is charitable to those who argue that "the Bible and historical orthodoxy supports the eternal subordination of the Son of God in function and authority". We are witnessing a strange turn of events. Trinitarians are divided over the Trinity. Instead of fighting against Arians, they are turning their swords on each other. Giles wrote: "I am particularly disappointed that my most strident critics, the members of Sydney Anglican Doctrine Commission, refused to read what I have written". Apparently, the Trinitarian house is divided against itself. Each side is accusing the other of misinterpreting the Trinity creed. The reformulated doctrine of the Trinity incorporates subordinationism but claims not to be Arian. Gilles disagrees and makes the case that subordinationism is antithetical to the Trinity and represents a return to Arianism. Is
there such a thing as an Arian Trinitarian? This in-house controversy spotlights Trinitarians who are willing to acknowledge the clear biblical teaching the Jesus is subordinate to the Father. But rather than abandoning the Nicene creed, they want to introduce subordinationism into the Trinity.
Gilles, who is an antisubordinationist Trinitarian, believes in the complete equality of the three divine persons and argues that women are not eternally subordinate to men. He criticizes subordinationist Trinitarians for using the hierarchically ordered Trinity "to maintain the permanent subordination of women". Gilles mentions that "some of the best contemporary expositions of the doctrine of the Trinity see the Trinity as a charter for human liberation and emancipation" (p. 18). According to him, the Bible suggests that "permanently subordinating a race, socioeconomic group, or sex is not pleasing to God. The subordination of any person is a reflection of the realities of a fallen world, not God's idea. This response demands believing that it is quite erroneous to eternally subordinate God the Son to God the Father and to permanently subordinate women to men. The first idea demeans the Son of God and the second demeans women" (p. 312). Dragging the issue of women's subordination to men into the Trinity controversy further complicates the debate and makes it even more explosive.
Subordinationist Trinitarians should not argue that because the Son is permanently subordinate to the Father, women are permanently subordinate to men. The Bible does not specifically state that women are eternally subordinate to men. And antisubordinationist Trinitarians should not argue that because the three divine persons are equal, women should be considered equal to men in the church and at home. Scripture clearly subordinates a wife to her husband. And women cannot be ordained into the ministry and have authority over men in the church.
Gilles champions equality for women in the church and at home, but this clearly contradicts scripture. How sad that he genuflects before feminist theologians and has surrendered to the women's liberation movement. He fails to realize that a feminist theologian is just another eve handing the church an apple. It is a biblical fact that God subordinates women to men and we must abide by his decision. When women are transformed into spirit beings, their status could change, but scripture is silent on that matter.
I am troubled by Gilles statement that the subordination of the Son to the Father is demeaning. When Jesus said "the Father is greater than I", he never mentioned that he found that demeaning. He accepted his subordinate position and was obedient and submissive to the will of the Father. I don't feel demeaned because I am eternally subordinate to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Gilles is playing into the hands of feminists when he buys into the argument that subordination is demeaning. He needs to be emancipated from the false teachings of feminist theologians. Are there any real men left in the church who won't bow to the feminist Baal?
While this is an important issue and needs to be addressed, I don't want to get too sidetracked from the debate over the doctrine of the Trinity. But Isn't it ironic that a false doctrine is being used to emancipate women.
Gilles makes an important point regarding the doctrine of the Trinity and the interpretation of scripture:
"When evangelical theologians are in dispute with one another about important doctrines
such as baptism, eschatology, the church, the gifts of the spirit, or women in leadership,
resolution is seldom found. It is not found because there are no objective criteria to judge
the competing interpretations of scripture. There is no broad consensus among the great
theologians of the past as to what the scriptures are teaching on these doctrine and no
defining comments in the creeds and confessions to which appeal can be made. It is very
different with the doctrines of the Trinity and Christ" (p. 19).
Gilles seems to be lamenting the pathetic state of Protestant theology. But his purpose is to sell the idea that the creeds are the objective criteria for judging the competing interpretations of scripture. He seems to ignore the fact that creeds themselves are subject to interpretation and therefore cannot function as an objective criteria of truth. Apparently he thinks that there is a broad consensus among great theologians on the subject of the Trinity. But this article will soon shatter that myth. As I will illustrate, there is great division among Trinitarians on how to interpret the Nicene-Constantinople Creed. Therefore, an appeal to this creed is not sufficient to settle disputes. The fact that "the two sides claim that the great theologians of the past and the creeds and confessions are on their side" proves the point.
Lest anyone think that adherents to the doctrine of subordinationism are limited to Unitarians and Jehovah's Witnesses, allow me to introduce evangelical theologians who champion the same teaching. In 1977, Baker Books published an influential work by George Knight III, which is titled "New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women". According to Gilles, Knight teaches that "the Son is eternally subordinate in role and authority to the Father despite the fact that the Father and Son are both fully divine". Then in 1994, Wayne Grudem's "Systematic Theology" was published and "is now the most widely used systematic theological textbook in evangelical seminaries and Bible colleges in North America and most other English-speaking countries". Grudem teaches the same doctrine as George Knight III, namely that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father. In 2002, the release of the book "God Under Fire: Modern Theology Reinvents God" provided even more fuel for the debate. It was written by "twelve leading conservative evangelical scholars".
Gilles comment on one chapter in this book is worth quoting:
"The chapter on the Trinity is written by Bruce Ware, the senior associate dean of the school
of theology and professor of Christian theology at the Southern Baptist theological Seminary
in Kentucky. He claims that historic orthodoxy teaches that the Son of God is 'equal in being,
eternally subordinate in role'. The Trinity is a 'functional hierarchy'. There is an 'eternal
relationship of authority and obedience grounded in the eternal immanent inner-Trinitarian
relationships of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit'. If God is rightly called Father, then Ware holds
the divine Father must be set over the Son, for human fathers always have authority over
their sons. It is contemporary theologians, he argues, who speak of a coequal Trinity who
have broken with historic orthodoxy" (p. 21).
The list of evangelical subordinationists includes Norman Geisler, who states in his four volume "Systematic Theology" that the Father's "function is superior" and the Son's "submission is eternal". And Professor John Frame of Westminster Theological Seminary argues that the Son and the spirit are "subordinate to the commands of the Father, because that kind of subordination is appropriate to the eternal nature of the persons, the personal properties that distinguish each one from the other". Gilles laments the fact that "the Sydney Anglican Diocese has officially adopted this position". The commission report "unambiguously endorsed the eternal subordination of the Son and hierarchical ordering in the immanent Trinity with ontological overtones". The key participants commend the eastern tradition, which emphasizes the "priority of the Father" because "it ensures a hierarchical mode of conceiving God". Gilles comments that the "most startling of all is the claim that the Athanasian Creed clearly witnesses to a belief in 'difference in being' between the divine persons, something most theologians have
thought this creed explicitly excludes. Equally surprising is the assertion that the Arians only 'overemphasized the subordinationist element in the NT" (p. 25), It appears that some evangelicals are semi-Arians dressed in Trinitarian clothes and are moving toward the Arian position in increments.
What then is the significance of this movement toward Arianism? It reveals a deep dissatisfaction with the traditional doctrine of the Trinity and a desire to modify the formula in order to more accurately reflect the biblical doctrine of subordinationism. Many prominent evangelical theologians recognize that the Bible clearly teaches the subordination of the Son to the Father. But rather than repudiating the doctrine of the Trinity, they attempt to incorporate the concept of subordination into the Godhead. The result is a hybrid which most Trinitarians and Arians find unacceptable.
Gilles recognizes the implications of the new doctrine of the Trinity. It means that the three persons each have their own will and therefore "the unity of the Godhead is destroyed". According to Gilles, orthodoxy teaches that the three persons have one will. But Jesus had a separate will from the Father. His statement "thy will be done not mine" (Mat.26:39) proves the point. If three distinct persons each have their own will, then how can they be one being with one will?
Gilles mentions that the second century apologists Aristides, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian "naively subordinate the Son to the Father thinking this safeguarded the monarchy (sole rule of the Father), whom they considered to be God in the ultimate sense of the term". Many evangelicals take the same position but do not think it naive. The fact that all of these writers were subordinationists and considered the Father to be God in the ultimate sense shows that a form of monotheism was still being maintained in the second century.
Most Christians who embrace the doctrine of the Trinity are not aware of the fact that different models of the Trinity exist and that they contradict each other. Gilles endorses the 'communal model" in which "the divine three have one center of consciousness and one will" (p. 81). But in the "social model" of the Trinity "each divine person is thought of as a center of consciousness" (p. 81). Gilles thinks that this model harbors the danger of tritheism. He mentions that Jurgen Moltmann advocates this "strong version of social trinitarianism". With three centers of consciousness, it is difficult not to conclude that three wills exist. I find it interesting that elements of Arianism are found in some of these Trinitarian models. Are these theologians "closet Arians" and are the models they invent merely disguised forms of Arianism? Why wear the mask of Trinitarianism when you advocate a form of Arianism? Gilles skillfully detects Arian elements in these models and warns of the theological consequences.
At first Kevin Gilles seems like a logical person who makes sure that his theology doesn't contradict reason, but when he attempts to explain 1Corinthians 15: 24-28, he throws logic out the window and engages in some rather convoluted reasoning. These verses are problematic for Gilles because Paul reveals the subordination of Christ to the Father in a most explicit and definitive manner. For antisubordinationist Trinitarians, this passage creates an instant crisis in their theology. Paul doesn't leave any wiggle room for them to escape the conclusion that Jesus is subordinate to the Father. Gilles manages to muster an answer but it is hopelessly inadequate. Then he turns to other Trinitarian theologians for assistance. Their answers are classic examples of scripture twisting.
Gilles finds Wolfhart Pannenberg's explanation the most convincing:
"Whereas most orthodox theologians are somewhat embarrassed by 1 Cor. 15:28, Pannenberg
gives pride of place to this text in his daring interpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity. This text,
he maintains, demonstrates that the Father and the Son are distinguished by their mutual
dependence. At the resurrection the Father gives all rule to the Son, and at the end the Son
hands back rule to the Father. He writes, 'In the handing over of Lordship from the Father to
the Son, and in handing back by the Son to the Father, we see mutuality in their relationship'.
Pannenberg gives no exegetical basis for this claim" (p. 115).
The reason most orthodox theologians are embarrassed by what Paul wrote is because it completely refutes their Trinitarian theology. It decisively demonstrates that Christ is subordinate to the Father and no amount of scripture twisting can change that fact. Pannenberg's daring reinterpretation misses the mark. Nowhere in the Bible are we told the Father is dependent upon the Son. Scripture emphasizes Christ's complete dependence upon the Father. Pannenberg's reinterpretation is merely speculation disguised as theology.
Why is it that the minute a Trinitarians finds a passage that refutes his position, he labels it "difficult"? Allow me to quote Gilles lamentation: "No one can deny that 1 Cor. 15:24-28 is a difficult text to interpret. In these words Paul takes us into the presence of God on the last days, stretching our human minds beyond their limit. Here --- more than anywhere else in Paul's writings --- our attempts to understand the apostle are penultimate and inadequate" (p. 115). Perhaps it stretches Gilles mind beyond its limit, but for many of us this passage isn't even a stretch to comprehend. The meaning is too obvious to miss. At least antisubordinationist Trinitarians are honest enough to accept the meaning of the text. Gilles moves in every direction except toward the truth. He writes that "another approach in dealing with this difficult text is to let the wider theological commitments determine the meaning of this one problematic text" (p. 114). But the problem is Gilles, not the text. His theological commitment to the doctrine of the Trinity forces him into a state of denial. To admit the obvious and true meaning of the passage would require
him to radically change his theology. Paul's words are neither obscure nor ambiguous. He tells us that "when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all". This is classic subordinationism. What part of that doesn't Gilles understand?
It is important to ask the question: What is the difference between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? In his book "Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood", subordinationist Trinitarian Wayne Grudem writes that "authority and submission between the Father and the Son...and the Holy Spirit, is the fundamental difference between the persons of the Trinity" (p. 31). And in his publication "Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth", he says that "if we do not have such differences in authority in the relationships among the member of the Trinity, then we would not know of any differences at all" (p. 433). Grudem think that this authority is "the most fundamental aspect of interpersonal relationships in the universe" (p. 429). We know that the Father is the head of Christ. Paul made that plain when he wrote that "the head of Christ is God" (I Cor. 11:3). Christ's obedience to the Father isn't voluntary or temporary. It is the permanent basis of their relationship. Antisubordinationists want to level the playing field and make the Father and the Son equal in being, authority, and work. In that case, differences completely disappear and the Father and the Son cannot be distinguished. If both are equal in every respect, then the terms Father and Son would have no meaning. How can you distinguish individuals when there are no differences? Regardless of what Trinitarians say, the Bible carefully distinguishes the Father from the Son and clearly delineates the differences. Subordination is the defining difference between the two. By rejecting the doctrine of the subordination of Christ to the Father, Trinitarians are removing the most important difference in the relationship. Without knowing that critical difference, the true doctrine of God cannot be formulated.
Gilles makes a rather confusing statement regarding the Trinity. He says that they are "one in divinity, being, work, majesty, and authority, but not one and the same" (p. 208). His claim that the Trinity is one but not one and the same has a touch of theological madness. If the persons of the Trinity are one in every respect, then it cannot be said that they are not one and the same. Gilles seems to abandon logic whenever it contradicts his theology. Perhaps an excessive preoccupation with theology can cause the mind to lose touch with reality.
Gilles rightly understands that subordinationist Trinitarianism contains elements of Arianism. He writes that "this teaching has dire consequences for divine unity and simplicity. In the previous chapter we made the point that if the Son must eternally obey the Father, this presupposes that the divine persons each have their own will. Three separate wills imply three separate and divided persons, and this is classic tritheism. Emphasizing divine differentiation exacerbates this problem. When the differences between the divine three are brought to the foreground, divine unity is eclipsed...the end result is the persons of the Trinity are divided and separated. In this contemporary conservative evangelical doctrine of the Trinity, first divine equality is sacrificed, and then divine unity is sacrificed" (p. 210). Rather than uncovering heresy, Gilles is being exposed to the true doctrine of God. He thinks that these conservative evangelicals are reinventing God. But in fact they are moving toward the truth. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are separate person with separate wills. And the Son and the Holy Spirit are subordinate to the Father. These conservative evangelicals should be commended for repudiating antisubordinationism and embracing elements of Arianism that conform to scripture. In reality, the doctrine of the Trinity was a fourth century attempt to reinvent the doctrine of God. Arians fought valiantly to preserve biblical monotheism but were defeated by wolves like Athanasius.
Trinitarians relish quoting the early church Fathers to show that the doctrine of the Trinity reaches back to the second century, but pay scant attention to the Fathers who were "ardent monotheists". Irenaeus taught that God the Father is "the one true God". Gilles informs us that "in the pre-Nicene 'model' of the Trinity, differentiation is unambiguously affirmed, but the Son and the Spirit are not coequal God" (p. 213). In the third century, the church Fathers drifted even farther away from the true doctrine of God and in the fourth century they completely reinvented God in their final version of the Trinity. The Father was no longer the one true God. Now there were three persons who were God. This represented a cataclysmic change in the very concept of God.
It is worth noting that third century theologian Tertullian believed that the Father is the one true God, but that the one God became three. Gilles criticizes this concept of the Trinity because it implies that God became three in time and the other two members are subordinate. And he frowns when Tertullian speaks of the Son as 'second' and the spirit as 'third' from God. But Tertullian's concept of God preserves part of the truth. He maintained that the Son and the Holy Spirit are less than the Father.
It is significant that Karl Barth, arguably the greatest theologian of the twentieth century, espoused a doctrine of the Trinity that contains an element of modalism. Gilles tells us that "because he believes the word 'person' necessarily implies three centers of consciousness, something that would undermine the unity of the Christian God, Barth chooses rather to speak of a 'mode or way of being' to designate the divine three. For Barth these three modes or ways of being can never be separated" (p. 236). Obviously, with each person in the Trinity having their own center of consciousness, it is not possible to maintain the concept of one being with one conscience. For Barth the only solution was to conceptualize the three persons in terms of modes. He realized that the idea of three distinct persons in God was the weakest link in the doctrine. Only by switching to a modalistic concept of God was he able to maintain the Trinity. However, the idea that God is composed of three modes and each mode plays a different role has no biblical backing.
Barth believed that the begetting of Christ was metaphorical. In his "Church Dogmatics", he writes that "the natural character of the metaphor of begetting makes it clear at the outset that in all that is said about Father and Son in description of the two modes of being in God we have a frail and contestable figure of speech" (p. 431). Begetting is anything but a "frail and contestable figure of speech". It is a strong and incontestable reality. The Father literally beget his Son. Reducing it to a metaphor is insulting. Why would anyone think that the Father is incapable of literally begetting a Son? Barth's erudition is impressive but his theology is not. His brilliant intellect proved to be a stumbling block to comprehending the simplicity in God.
While I have serious issues with Jurgen Moltmann, he does make a powerful and insightful statement regarding the death of Christ. In his book "The Trinity and the Kingdom", he writes that "on the cross the Father and the Son are so deeply separated that their relationship breaks off" (p. 82). That could only be possible if the Father and the Son are separate beings. At that moment on the cross, the Father turned his back and abandoned his Son. The relationship was rent asunder and broken off. The Son of God was dead but the Father remained alive. A being cannot be dead and alive at the same moment. Therefore, the Father and the Son cannot be the same being.
Wolfhart Pannenberg, an exponent of the plural model of the Trinity, criticizes the Cappadocian Fathers on an important point. Gilles tells us that Pannenberg argues that "the Cappadocians' error was to seek also to ground divine unity and differentiation in the Father as 'the source and principle of Deity'. Both the idea that the Father is the 'monarche' of the Son and the Spirit and that the Son is 'eternally begotten' and the Spirit 'eternally proceeds', he believes, undermine the 'mutuality' and 'reciprocity' basic to the divine unity" (p. 239). If Pannenberg is correct that the Cappadocians were in error, then why are they still held in such high esteem? His criticism stems from the fact that his model of the Trinity conflicts with orthodoxy. The question among Trinitarians is this: Which model of the Trinity do you accept? With multiple models available to chose from, it becomes difficult to make a decision.
It is worth noting that Trinitarian Wayne Grudem objects to the idea that the Son was eternally begotten. Gilles takes issue with him and thinks it dangerous to reject a doctrine contained in the creeds. He writes: "I therefore cannot agree with Grudem when he argues that the idea of the Son's eternal begetting or generation be removed 'from modern theological formulations' of the Trinity" P. 240). Church Fathers sought to advance the idea that Christ had no beginning, but failed to explain how a person can be eternally begotten. The idea is grossly absurd because the act of begetting requires a starting point. Thus, Grudem is correct that it should be removed from theology. It is significant that many Trinitarians are picking apart the original formula and discarding objectionable elements. But it only represents a desperate attempt to salvage the doctrine of the Trinity. Rather than tinkering and toying with the original formula, Grudem should discard it altogether and begin a new quest for the true doctrine of God. The day of the doctrine of the Trinity has long since passed. This historical and theological dinosaur should be extinct.
Gilles makes an intriguing comment regarding the "social model" of the Trinity and how if differs from the original:
"One of the important contributions to Trinitarian theology made by theologian in the last thirty
years has been the recognition that this emphasis on divine unity and how it conceptualized
in the so-called Western tradition is deficient. In its place a 'communal' or 'social' model of the
Trinity has been advocated and widely endorsed. In this approach the unity of God is not found
in 'one divine substance,' a very abstract and unitary idea, but in the most profound community
of love and self-giving imaginable that characterizes the life of the divine persons" (p. 240-241).
I agree that the idea of God being "one divine substance" is too abstract to be useful. But does the new social model of the Trinity more accurately describe the relationship between the divine persons? Is God a community of equal persons? I contend that there is no substantial difference between the original and new model. The effort to correct the original model backfires because it strongly suggests tritheism. Even more importantly, the new model rejects the idea that the Son and the Holy Spirit are subordinate to the Father. Thus, the reconceptualization of the Trinity changes nothing.
It is somewhat amusing to read what Gilles has to say about trinitarian theologian Cornelius Van Til:
"In American conservative Reformed circles, Cornelius Van Til is a theological giant.
For him the doctrine of the Trinity 'is the heart of Christianity.' No other doctrine is
more important. He presupposed as a philosophical given that the one and the many,
the unity and the diversity, the oneness and the threeness, in the Christian God are
'equally ultimate.' For him both divine coequality and eternal differentiation are
absolutes" (p. 257).
Apparently it doesn't take much to be a theological giant in Reformed circles. If you are allergic to the truth and addicted to false doctrine, you qualify. Van Til could be more accurately described as a theological dwarf who invents false absolutes. Divine co-equality is only absolute in the sense of being absolutely false. And if the doctrine of the Trinity is the heart of Christianity, then the church is in deep trouble. Surely the falsification of the doctrine of God cannot be the heart of Christianity. Calvinists like Van Til are turning theology upside down when they teach that others are "equally ultimate" with the Father. Isn't it ironic that it takes a theological giant to formulate a false absolute.
I continue to cite Gilles to further illustrate the division among Trinitarians over the definition of the Trinity. He mentions Paul Molnar's book "Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity". Apparently Molnar thinks that Trinitarians Karl Rahner and Catherine LaCugna are taking the church down the wrong path. According to Gilles "Molnar takes no prisoners along the way. He is convinced that both Catholic and Protestant theological liberals are in error. They depict God in human categories and define the triune relations according to human relations, thereby making the creator in the image of the creature" (p. 263). What Molnar fails to grasp is that the divine Father-Son relationship was the model for the human father-son relationship. In other words, the divine preceded the human. Therefore, concluding that subordination in the human father-son relationship is indicative of subordination in the divine Father-Son relationship is not a case of making God in the image of man. We have scriptural confirmation that the Son of God is subordinate to the Father. Thus, we are not solely dependent upon the human father-son relationship to define the divine Father-Son relationship.
I have deliberately joined the debate between Trinitarians to showcase their bitter dispute and bring to readers attention that fact the Arian ideas are infiltrating the doctrine of the Trinity. Charges and counter-charges are flying in all directions in this inter-Trinitarian war. It is surprising to find that some traditional opponents, meaning liberal and conservative Christians, have the same agenda. They both want to introduce subordinationism into the doctrine of the Trinity. I hope their efforts succeed because it will lend weight to Arian ideas and make it more acceptable to believe in alternatives to the traditional doctrine of the Trinity.
It is worth noting that Karl Rahner's comment on the Greek word "theos" borders on Arianism. In his essay "Theos in the New Testament", he writes that "O theos in the language of the New Testament signifies the Father...the concrete, individual uninterchangeable person...who is, in fact the Father, not the single divine nature that is seen subsisting in three hypostasis, but the concrete person who possesses the divine nature unoriginately" (Theological Investigations, Vol. 1, 146). Rahner seems to be suggesting that the Father is a separate person with his own divine nature. And in his writings he identifies the Father as the "monarche" of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Thus, it comes a no surprise that William Hill and Joseph DiNoia, both well respected Catholic theologians, would accuse Rahner of opening the door to subordinationism. It almost seems like a witch hunt is taking place. Antisubordinationist Trinitarians are eager to expose any theologian whose writings even hint of subordinationism. Rahner is aware of the fact that making the Father the "monarche" of the Son and the Holy Spirit tends toward
"cryptic subordinationism". And while he might repudiate the logical implications of his position, the concept of a "monarche" in the Trinity carries the meaning of subordinationism.
Rahner has a problem with his Christology in that it borders on Ebionism. Gilles points out that "in tension he develops 'a Christology from above (Christ is God come down to earth) and 'a Christology from below' (Christ was the most godly of men taken up into the Godhead) without ever seeking to reconcile the two. As a consequence his Christology is seemingly contradictory" (p. 268). Gilles call this the "Ebionite tendency in Rahner's Christology". The Ebionites were first century Jewish Christians who rejected the idea that Jesus had a pre-existence. According to them, he was a human being that God deified. Gilles thinks that Rahner's Ebionite strand should be judged as dangerous and rejected.
Another question needs to be asked about Rahner's Christology. If the three persons in the Trinity are equal, then why does he insist that only the Son could have become incarnate? Gilles points out that Rahner rejected "the scholastic position given classic expression by Aquinas that any of the divine three persons could have taken human flesh" (p. 271). Rahner believes that it was necessary for the Son to become incarnate because he is the logos of God that reveals the Father. But would it not have been better if the Father had become incarnate and revealed himself? Aquinas asked that very question but decided that it was more appropriate for the Son to become incarnate. However, had the Father become incarnate it would have left no doubt that God came in the flesh.
If the three persons in the Trinity are equal in being, power, and authority, then who decides which one becomes flesh? Benjamin Warfield suggested that they came to an "agreement". Gilles tells us that this "reflects the seventeenth century idea of 'a covenant of redemption' made between the Father and the Son as to who would become man to save the human race" (p. 271). Bruce ware makes the point that if you deny the subordination of the Son to the Father, then it becomes impossible to know why the Son was sent instead of the Father or the Holy Spirit. I believe that the Father made the decision to send his Son. The word became flesh out of obedience to the Father. In contrast, the equality in the Trinity would create an eternal stalemate as to which person would become incarnate. And if all three either volunteered or refused the task, then who would make the final decision?
Karl Barth addresses a rather troublesome issue in the doctrine of the Trinity. If God is one being, then how can the one God command and obey? In his "Church Dogmatics", he admits that "it is a difficult and even elusive thing to speak of an obedience which takes place in God himself. Obedience implies an above and below, a prius and a posterius, a superior and a junior and subordinate" (p. 4.1, 195). He then carries his thought to its logical conclusion and writes that there can be no avoiding "the offensive fact that there is in God himself an above and below, a prius and posterius, a superiority and a subordination...that it belongs to the inner life of God" (4.1,200). Barth speaks of a mysterious subordination in God himself and claims that God "is both the One obeyed and Another who obeys". But this is theological nonsense. The same being does not command and obey itself. And why should superiority and subordination in God be an offensive fact? Should we not celebrate that revelation?
When Barth's utilizes "elusive, paradoxical, and dialectic language" to explain the Trinity, he disqualifies himself as a legitimate theologian.
But is dialectics an option in theology? Would it not be better to reject contradiction rather than seek to synthesize discordant elements? And why should opposites be held in tension? Either Christ is omnipotent or subordinate. Gilles asserts that "Berkouwer, like many contemporary evangelicals, seems to miss the dialectic in Barth's doctrine of God" (p. 298). But Gilles is wrong. The dialectic is not being missed, it is being rejected. Barth's Christ is a theological contradiction. How can Jesus be sovereign and subordinate? Barth's new paradigm creates a distinction between the sovereign and the subordinate Christ, but unlike Reformed theologians, he does not consider it a temporary distinction. Barth expects us to accept a sovereign and subordinate Christ and hold this contradiction in permanent tension. But scripture does not contain discordant elements that must be held in tension. Barth's "revolutionary Christology" is a lesson in contradiction and an example of the questionable use of dialectics in theology. Even Gilles finds Barth's "radical reconceptualization" of Christology "just too difficult and its biblical basis too thin" (p. 302). He concludes that Barth introduces "a dialectic that is hard to comprehend and
something the New Testament does not endorse" (p. 302).
The Reformed theologian G. C. Berkouwer was wrong to argue that Barth had fallen into the error of
subordinationism. Barth fell into the truth of subordinationism. His error was to retain the Trinity. But he created an insoluble problem for himself. As Gilles puts it: "How can omnipotent God be obedient to omnipotent God". How can we even speak of God as being obedient? God cannot be God if he is obedient. God does not obey, he commands. The doctrine of the Trinity presupposes that three omnipotent persons exist, but that is not possible. Only one omnipotent person can exist. To be omnipotent is to be unequaled in power. The concept of two omnipotent persons existing at the same time is a contradiction. To be all powerful, a person must be more powerful than others. A person cannot be omnipotent and subordinate at the same time. Therefore, Barth's concept of the Trinity is absurd. The simple truth is that the subordinate Son submits to the omnipotent Father.
As Gilles notes, Barth revolutionized Trinitarian thinking and Rahner took theologians where they have never been before. But both men followed their brilliant intellect rather than the Holy Spirit and added even more mysteries and contradictions to the doctrine of the Trinity. The new Trinitarians that I mention in this chapter sought to remedy the deficiencies in the original doctrine by introducing subordinationism. But antisubordinationist Trinitarians recognized elements of Arianism in the new formula and began to engage in theological warfare with those who were reinventing the Trinity. The battle continues to rage without any victor in sight. Most Christians do not realize that Trinitarians are at war with each other and that the doctrine of the Trinity is anything but settled. The good news is that subordinationism is gaining a strong foothold in many evangelical churches.
The Seven Absurdities of the Trinity
In defining God as a Trinity, the church fathers created the ultimate theological absurdity. It is apparent that the doctrine of the Trinity defies elementary logic and turns reason upside down.
1. God is three persons in one being.
There is no evidence that one being can be composed of three persons, nor is there any example in nature of a being that contains three persons. From the field of psychology we are aware of the fact that a human mind can split into several personalities, but that is caused by mental illness. These personalities are not considered distinct and separate individuals. The doctrine of the Trinity teaches that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct persons. This can only mean that they are three distinct beings because a person is a being and a being is a person. Trinitarians cannot explain how three distinct persons can be one being. Three does not equal one. Therefore, if you have three distinct persons, you have three distinct beings. It would be illogical to claim that three human persons can be one human being. Even Trinitarians would agree that the idea is absurd. But when they speak of the Trinity, absurdities and contradictions become acceptable.
The idea of three persons in one being defies logic and reason. Even Trinitarians find it impossible to explain. Earlier in this article I quoted Harold Brown as saying that "the statement that there are three persons, each of whom is God, while God is confessed as one, simply has to be explained to some extent, as otherwise it seems self-contradictory and absurd". But Brown offers no logical or rational explanation. Many theologians realize that the one and the three cannot be reconciled. In truth, if God is one being, God is one person.
Trinitarians like to point out that the one body of Christ has many members, but fail to mention that Paul refers to those members as parts of the body, not distinct persons in the body. In the Trinity, the three persons are not merely parts of God that function like arms and legs. Therefore, the comparison breaks down. Others mention that Israel is one nation with many citizens. But a nation is an abstract entity that cannot be compared to a real entity like God. Israel is one nation, not one being. Thus, the comparison falls apart.
The incoherence of the doctrine of the Trinity is well attested. If the Father and the Son are the same being, then the Father was begotten, incarnated, and died on the cross. The experience of one person in that being is the experience of every person in that being for the simple reason that they are the same indivisible being. But the fact that the Father was alive when Jesus was dead proves that they are not the same being. God cannot be dead and alive at the same time.
2. God is unbegotten and begotten.
The fact that the Father is unbegotten and the Son is begotten creates serious problems for Trinitarians. How can the same being be unbegotten and begotten? If the Father and the Son have eternally existed and are equal in being, power, and authority, then how is it possible for one to beget the other? A father-son relationship doesn't seem appropriate for two persons who are equal in every respect. We know the Jesus was begotten, but when did it take place? Whenever the word "beget" is used in scripture, it implies that the begetting occurred at a definite moment in time. And that in turn implies that there was a time prior to the begetting when the person did not exist. Trinitarians attempt to circumvent this by claiming that Jesus was "eternally begotten". According to them, there was never a time when Jesus was not begotten, therefore he had no beginning. Athanasius taught that the father is the origin or cause of the Son, but that the Son eternally existed. Hanson's response was that "in fact, it is doubtful whether the word 'cause' can have any meaning when applied to two eternally existing beings". Did the begetting of Jesus change anything? If both remained equal in being, power, and authority, then no real change
If the Son is the same uncaused and uncreated being as the Father, then the Son cannot be begotten because there never was a time when he did not exist. Being begotten implies a beginning. There had to be a time when God beget his Son. Therefore, I agree with Arius that there was a time when Jesus was not. Through the act of begetting the Father brought the Son into existence. Therefore, they cannot be the same being. Simple logic tells us that a being cannot be begotten and unbegotten. It would be similar to saying that a human being can be born and unborn. We need not descend into irrational thinking to grasp the doctrine of God.
3. God has a God.
The fact that Jesus has a God spells trouble for the doctrine of the Trinity. He said that the Father was his God (John 20:17). Paul also identified the Father as the God of Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:6). How can Jesus have a God when he is God? And how can Jesus be equal to his God? Who is equal to their God? The doctrine of the Trinity teaches that God is one being and there is none greater. If Jesus, who is God, has a God, then who is that God? If that God is the Father, then Jesus cannot be the same being as God. The fact that Jesus has a God proves that he is not God. Simply stated, God has no God.
We never read in scripture that the Father has a God, but we know that Jesus does. If the Father and the Son are the same being, then how can the same being have a God and be God? And how can the Father and the Son be equal when one has a God and the other doesn't? This clearly illustrates the absurdity of the Trinity.
4. God is unequal to God.
Jesus said: "My Father is greater than I" (John 14:28). If Jesus is God but not equal to the Father, then God is unequal to God. It would be absurd to suggest that a being is unequal to itself. Trinitarians will respond by saying that the Father and Son are equal. But that contradicts scripture. When Jesus said "my father is greater than I, he was not employing hyperbole. He was confirming the superiority of the Father. Trinitarians who teach that Jesus is subordinate to the Father acknowledge that the Father is greater than the Son, but they cannot explain how God can be unequal to God and subordinate to God. Thus, to take half measures and incorporate subordinationism into the Trinity does not improve the original formula. It makes it even more absurd. In truth, the acceptance of subordinationism requires the abandonment of the doctrine of the Trinity. If Jesus is less than the Father and subordinate to the Father, then they cannot be the same being.
5. God keeps information from God.
Concerning his second coming, Jesus said: "Of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father" (Mark 13:32). If Jesus is the same being as the Father, how can God withhold information from God? Can a being keep secrets from itself? Perhaps Trinitarians could begin by explaining how a human being can keep a secret from himself.
If the Father and the Son are the same being and have the same mind, it would be impossible for them to keep secrets from one another. Therefore, they must be separate beings with individual minds. The Father is able to protect the privacy of his mind from even his Son. Thus, the secret things of the Father are unknown to Christ.
6. God forsakes God.
When Jesus cried out "my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me", he knew that he was totally abandoned by the Father. If Jesus and the Father are the same being, how can God abandon God? It is absurd to suggest that a being can abandon itself. The unity and indivisibility of God makes that impossible. Therefore, Jesus could only be forsaken by a separate and distinct being.
7. God is good and not good.
When Jesus was called "good master", he responded by saying: "Why do you call me good. There is none good but God" (Luke 18:19). If Jesus is God, he must be good. It would be absurd to suggest that God is good and not good. Jesus was not confused about his identity. He knew he wasn't God. That is why he objected to being called good. If Jesus is God, he would have accepted the compliment and agreed that he was good.
While there are more than seven absurdities in the doctrine of the Trinity, it isn't necessary to list them all to make the point that the doctrine of the Trinity cannot survive the scrutiny of scripture, logic, and reason.
Richard Rubenstein sums up the matter:
"How can an all powerful, all knowing, all-good creator experience temptation, learn wisdom,
and grow in virtue? How can he suffer on the cross and die the death of a human being?
Surely, when Christ cried out 'my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' he was not
talking to himself. When he admitted that nobody knows the day and hour of judgment, 'not
even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only,' he was not just being modest.
And when he told his disciples that 'the Father is greater than I,' he meant exactly what he
said" (When Jesus Became God, p. 8).
Only deliberate blindness can prevent a person from arriving at the obvious and inescapable conclusion that the doctrine of the Trinity is absurd.
I would like to address a few remaining issues. It is crucial to ask the question: Why is Jesus called God if he isn't God? Many beings are called God, but that does not make them equal to God the Father. Being called God does not necessarily imply that a person is the uncaused cause or the unbegotten God. The Greek word "theos" is a title, not a personal name. Satan is called the "theos" of this world. Does that prove that he is God? I think not. His power and authority are derived from God. Satan functions as the God of this world, but he is not God. Thus, "theos" is a title that indicates authority and function. It does not necessarily mean that a person is actually God.
For Trinitarians, the fact that Jesus is called God implies that he is God. But they are mistaken on that point. Jesus called human beings "Gods" (John 10:34). Does that imply that humans are Gods in the full sense of the term?Are humans equal to God because Jesus gave them the title of God? Obviously he meant it in a different sense. Jesus did not equate human "Gods" with the ultimate God.
In Exodus 7:1, God said to Moses: "I will make you a God to the Pharaoh". But Moses was not literally God. He was "as God" or "like God" to the Pharaoh. The same is true of Jesus. He is "as God" or "like God" to humans. He received the title "God" because he functions as God. The word "theos" has different levels of meaning. The lowest is the belly and the highest is God the Father. It is perfectly legitimate to call Jesus "God" as long as it is understood that he is not literally God. We need to carefully distinguish between a person who is called God and a person who is God. Only the Father is literally God.
The apostles lived in a world where mortal rulers were called God. If the title "God" was conferred upon mere humans, how much more does Jesus deserve to be called God. But he preferred to be called "the son of God", because that is what he literally is. The Bible calls Jesus "God", but nowhere in scripture does it say that "Jesus is God". Paul refers to the Father as "God the Father", but he never refers to Jesus as "God the Son". Christians confess that Jesus is the Son of God, but are not required to confess that Jesus is God. In truth, Jesus has the title "God", but he is not literally God. If Trinitarians want to argue that Jesus is God because he is called God, they must also argue that humans are God because they are called God. In reality, Jesus is the Son of God, not God.
Another issue concerns the sacrifice of Christ. Trinitarians contend that Jesus had to be God or his sacrifice would not be sufficient to atone for the sins of the world. But scripture does not make that stipulation. It is the Father who determines if a sacrifice is sufficient to cover the sins of mankind. The fact that Jesus is the word of God and the Son of God makes his sacrifice sufficient. Thus, It wasn't necessary for Jesus to be God in order to pay the penalty for sin. When Jesus died, scripture does not say that God died. The idea of God being put to death is utterly foreign to the Bible. How can an uncaused, self-existent being ever die? The fact that Jesus died proves that he is not God. Scripture never says that God died on the cross, nor does it proclaim that God was resurrected from the dead. God cannot die. But the Son of God could be put to death because he is not an uncaused, self-existent being. Those who believe that Jesus is God need to show convincing biblical evidence that God can die. In reality, God was alive when Jesus was dead.
If the Father considers the sacrifice of a person who is not God to be sufficient to atone for the sins of the world, then why are theologians requiring that God be put to death? Scripture never says that God must die to save the world. Trinitarians demand the death of God as atonement for sin, but that demand can never be met because God cannot die. God did not sacrifice God. He sacrificed his Son. Trinitarians will never find a scripture which states that God died for the sins of the world.
The next issue involves that the identity of Jesus. If Jesus isn't God, then who is he? Scripture reveals that he is the word of God, the Son of God, and the Lord of Lords. He has the title of God for authoritative and functional purposes. He was begotten of God and therefore derives his existence from God. Jesus is the Messiah and Savior of the world. His death atoned for the sins of mankind. He was resurrected by God and sits at the right hand of the Father. Jesus is our high priest and mediator. He is the firstborn of God and the Captain of our salvation. When God's plan is completed, Jesus will turn all power and authority over to the Father.
This brings to our attention another important issue. If Jesus isn't God, then why is he worshipped? Are we breaking the first commandment? The answer is found in Paul's epistle to the Philippians. He wrote that "God highly exalted him, and gave unto him the name which is above every name; that in the name of Jesus every knee shall bow...and that every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of the Father" (Phil. 2:9-11). Notice that Paul carefully distinguishes Jesus from the Father. If Jesus and the Father are the same being, then Jesus would to exalting himself. Notice also that every tongue is required to confess that Jesus is Lord, but not required to confess that Jesus is God. If Jesus is both Lord and God, why would every tongue be required to confess the lesser position of Lord and not the greater position of God?
When Jesus was exalted to the position of Lord, he became worthy of worship. The Father requires us to worship Jesus as Lord, but not as God. Therefore, we are not breaking the first commandment. Jesus isn't another God that we worship. If the Father wants us to worship Jesus as Lord, then we are obligated to obey that command. The fact that Jesus isn't God should not prevent us from worshipping him as Lord.
In the previous chapter, I listed the seven absurdities of the Trinity, but many more could be added. Jesus said that "no man has seen God at any time" (John 1:18). If Jesus is God, then how do we explain this verse? Surely he was aware of the fact that he was visible to humans. The problem is often dismissed by saying that no man has seen other members of the Trinity or seen God in his fully manifested and glorified form. But Jesus did not qualify his remark. He made the straightforward claim that no man has seen God. If Jesus is God, he never would have made that statement. He would have said: "When you look upon me, you have seen God". Instead, he said just the opposite. This indicates that Jesus does not believe that he is God. If Jesus is God, then man has seen God. But Jesus refutes that by his very words.
That Jesus is subordinate to the Father is powerfully expressed in the gospel of John. He wrote: "For as the Father has life in himself, even so gave he to the Son also to have life in himself" (John 5:26). In order for the Father to give life to his Son, there had to be a time prior to that when the Son did not have life in himself. If the Father and the Son are the same being, then the Son already had life in himself and there would be not need to receive it. The Father is unique in that he always had life in himself. No one else, including the Son, can make that claim. In order for the Son to have life in himself, he had to receive it from the Father. Therefore, the Father and the Son cannot be the same being.
Subordinationism abounds in John's gospel. Jesus said: "The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he sees the Father doing" (John 5:18). If Jesus can do nothing of himself, how can he be God? It would be the equivalent of saying that God can do nothing of himself. In reality, Jesus derives his power from the Father because the Father is the God of Jesus. If Jesus is God, he would have said: "I can do everything of myself". But he said the exact opposite. Thus, his complete dependence upon the Father is evident from scripture.
It is significant that Jesus never makes reference to the Trinity. If he is a member of the Trinity, why would he not reveal that truth. Why was he silent on the subject? He could have confirmed the Trinity, offered an explanation, and settled the matter. But Jesus never introduced himself as a member of the Trinity, nor did he claim to be God. The enigmatic expression "before Abraham was, I am" does not prove that Jesus is God. It simply means that he existed prior to Abraham. The "I am" formula is used extensively by Jesus and cannot be construed to mean that he is God.
The apostle Paul clearly differentiates Jesus from God. He writes that "the head of every man is Christ and the head of the woman is the man and the head of Christ is God" (I Cor. 11:2). The fact that the head of the woman is the man does not mean that they are the same being. They remain separate and distinct beings. And when it says that the head of every man is Christ, it does not imply that every man is the same being as Christ. Both are separate and distinct beings. So also, when it says that the head of Christ is God, its does not suggest that Christ is God. If Jesus is God, then God cannot be the head of Christ. Otherwise, Paul is saying that Christ is his own head and that would break the continuity of the verse. The point he makes is that just as the man has authority over the woman and Christ has authority over the man, God has authority over Christ. We learn from this verse that Christ is not the head of God. He is subordinate and submissive to God.
The claim that Jesus is God creates numerous absurdities. The idea that the human Jesus is the divine God is incoherent. If Jesus is human, he is caused. But if he is God, he is uncaused. How can Jesus be caused and uncaused?
If Jesus is God, he is omniscient. But if he is human, he is not omniscient. How can Jesus be omniscient and not omniscient? He admitted to not knowing that day or the hour of his return. This is biblical proof that Jesus is not omniscient. Therefore, he cannot be God.
If Jesus is God, he is morally perfect. How is it possible for a morally perfect person to be tempted? And yet we know that Jesus was tempted. Satan would not have tempted Christ unless he knew that the Son of God was capable of sin. If Jesus is God and it is impossible for God to sin, then how could he be tempted to sin? If Jesus did not have to resist sin, he would not be human. And if he did not have to resist sin, what is so praiseworthy about Jesus living a sinless life? He had to be capable of temptation and sin, otherwise he was just going through the motions.
Trinitarian Thomas Morris concedes that "if seeing that an individual is God requires seeing that he is omnipotent, necessarily good, omnipresent, omniscient, ontologically independent, and the like, then the prospect for just directly seeing that Jesus is God looks pretty dim, to say the least" (The Logic of God Incarnate, p. 200). Actually, the prospects are non-existent. God is not man and man is not God. Therefore, If Jesus is man, he is not God.
The doctrine of the Trinity is the most serious theological error in the history of hermeneutics. As Hans Kung pointed out, if the Nicene Creed is the criteria of orthodoxy, then Christians of the first three centuries were heretics. Prior to the Council of Nicaea, the belief that Christ was subordinate to the Father was orthodoxy. And today, numerous evangelical theologians are seeking to restore that original orthodoxy. They realize that making Jesus equal to the Father in being, power, and authority is a major theological error. But this modern movement to restore biblical subordinationism doesn't go far enough. Evangelicals must stop clinging to the dead doctrine of the Trinity.
In his book "A History of Christian Thought", Justo Gonzalez asks the question: "It it possible to see the
development of Christian thought from the days of Pentecost to the days of Chalcedon as a vast, although unknowing apostasy in which the original gospel was abandoned for the sake of vain philosophies and dogmatic minutiae? Was not the original Jewish message Hellenized to such a point that it practically ceased to be Jewish? Probably so" (p. 381). But even stronger words are necessary. The doctrine of the Trinity is apostate, not apostolic. And the fourth century can rightly be called "the century of heresy". Athanasius laid the foundation of false doctrine and others have been building upon it ever since. Much of what is called orthodoxy is nothing but rank heresy.
Why is it that thirty-four years after the council of Nicaea approved the doctrine of the Trinity another church council composed of over five hundred bishops from east and west overthrew the Nicene Creed and adopted the Arian creed? What caused this stunning reversal. The answer is simple. These bishops reaffirmed what scripture taught: Jesus is subordinate to the Father. They recognized the fact that the Father and the Son are not equal. At least that church council had their theological ducks in order.
While I disagree with some of his teachings, I find common cause with Arius. He refused to believe that the Father and the Son are the same being and steadfastly maintained that Jesus was subordinate to the Father. He took a strong stance against the doctrine of the Trinity and never backed down. The man who was falsely labeled the worst heretic in church history was actually a godly person with valid spiritual credentials. Arius was an ordained minister of God and a faithful servant of Christ. The time has come to restore his reputation and acknowledge that he was a great defender of the faith. I believe that Arius will be vindicated in the Kingdom of God and declared a saint.
Fourth century pro-Nicenes discarded biblical monotheism and replaced it with a three person God. The Father was no longer absolute sovereign. He was now among equals. Two other persons shared his being, power, and authority and were not subordinate to his will. From a biblical perspective, this change had enormous consequences. It marked the virtual elimination of true monotheism. The most important doctrine of the Bible was erased from theology. God was no longer considered one person. Athanasius can be rightly accused of distorting true monotheism and tampering with the doctrine of God. Arians of the fourth century struggled for sixty years to maintain biblical monotheism but were defeated by pseudo-theologians who twisted the doctrine of God beyond recognition. The heroic defense of biblical monotheism by dedicated Christian Arians is a chapter in church history that has yet to be written.
The story of another Christian Arian is worth mentioning. A physician named Michael Servetus (1511-1553) published a book entitled "The Errors of the Trinity". He was condemned by the Catholic Church and later charged with heresy by Protestants in Geneva, a Calvinist stronghold. Servetus was arrested, put on trial, and condemned to death. This faithful Christian was burnt at the stake. John Calvin had the power to prevent this murderous act but failed in his Christian duty. Apparently he didn't think that the Catholic edict to burn heretics needed reforming.
Michael Servetus was martyred because he rejected the false doctrine of the Trinity. He was willing to sacrifice his life for the truth. Servetus realized that the Trinity is nothing but theological hocus pocus. The fact that Catholics and Protestants would put a Christian to death for rejecting the Trinity shows that organized Christianity is more about power than truth and that those in authority will commit murder to maintain their position. It is morally repugnant that Christians would burn a man at the stake for having doctrinal differences with the church.
In his book "The mosaic of Christian Belief", Roger Olson reminds us that "we must avoid using God's
incomprehensibility as an excuse for refusing to trace the clues of divine revelation as far as they take us in understanding God. God is not honored or glorified by lazy thinking about him. He reveals himself so that his human creatures might know him and be transformed by knowing him" (p. 151). In the doctrine of the Trinity, God becomes an unknowable being, an incomprehensible deity, an impenetrable mystery beyond explanation. But relegating God to a mystery is a lazy way of thinking and an excuse not to look for the simplicity in God. When you embrace the true doctrine of monotheism, the beauty, elegance, and simplicity of God becomes apparent. William Occam formulated the principle that the simplest explanation is the best. The true doctrine of God offers the simplest explanation. God is one person named the Father. When you comprehend that simple truth, the doctrine of God is no longer a mystery.
The doctrine of the Trinity is a figment of the theological imagination. It is filled with inconsistencies, contradictions, and absurdities. Why then do orthodox Christians cling to this doctrine? Hans Kung put his finger on the problem when he said that "traditionalist Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant theologians immunize themselves against any reasonable questions about the dogma of the Trinity with the irrational verdict, 'That is rationalism' (Christianity, p. 194). This deliberate refusal to face the problems inherent in the doctrine of the Trinity shows that the church is still in the dark ages of theology.
The story of three persons in one God is a theological fairy tale. But this strong and powerful illusion is not easily dispelled. It is an old heresy that won't go away. Trinitarians need to be awakened from their "dogmatic slumbers" and challenged to rethink the doctrine of God. Thomas Jefferson was right when he said that the doctrine of the Trinity is "metaphysical insanity".
The restoration of the true doctrine of God is great cause for celebration. God is one person named the Father. He is the God of Jesus Christ. And that is true monotheism.
Copyright (C) 2007 Albert Emanuel