Most Christian denominations teach that the essence of G_d exists in three forms, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father is as described in the Hebrew Scriptures – creator, omnipotent power, friend and judge; the Son, Yeshua, was sent to Earth in human form to redeem humanity; and the Holy Spirit is the means by which G_d works on Earth, bringing comfort, life and power.
Christians are urged to worship the Father, follow the example of the Son and live as if the Holy Spirit is present within them.
This doctrine was not taught in the 1st Century, so where did it come from?
The first recorded use of the phrase ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ in Christian theology is dated around 170 CE. The Nicene Creed (325 CE) ingrained it into the minds of the faithful so much so that Yeshua the Son, one third of the Trinity, became part of the popular image of him.
The Trinity claims scriptural authority from two passages:
- The penultimate verse of the Second Gospel (Matthew): ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ However, there is considerable doubt that Yeshua actually said these words or that the original author of the Second Gospel wrote them. Linguistic evidence suggests it was added retrospectively with the specific purpose of justifying the doctrine.
- There’s another reference to three ‘persons’ is in the concluding verse of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, but his wording hardly specifies a doctrine: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of G_d and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.’
The Arian Controversy
The doctrine of the Trinity grew out of the Arian Controversy of the 3rd and 4th Centuries CE. Arius (c256-336) was a Christian priest in Alexandria, Egypt. He believed that Yeshua the Son was subordinate to the Father as he had been conceived by G_d, and consequently there had been a time when he had not yet existed.
His main adversary was another Alexandrian, Athanasius (c296-336). He argued that the Son was of the same substance as the Father and therefore existed with him from the beginning of time. The dispute divided the church and Athanasius prevailed at Nicaea. Arius was declared a heretic and most of his writings were destroyed.
In the centuries that followed Muslims completely rejected the Trinity. While recognising Yeshua as an important prophet, they affirm only one G_d, Allah, with the Prophet Muhammad as its messenger, human, not divine.
The Holy Trinity eventually led to the ‘Great Schism’, the split between the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches in 1054.
The Council of Chalcedon (451 CE)
The Council of Chalcedon (451 CE) was another defining moment in church history. It arose out of continuing confusion about the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The major concern was whether the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were equal, or Father and Son were equal and Spirit subordinate, or Father superior to both, or what?
At the centre of the argument was the nature of Yeshua. Was he human or divine? How could he be both? If he was of one substance with the Father, then how do we explain his human characteristics – his anger, his tears, his need to rest and so on. Could a divine being feel pain? And if he were fully human, why did he not sin when he was on earth?
Under pressure from the Roman authorities, delegates settled on a compromise. Yeshua was both perfectly divine and perfectly human at the same time. He was the ‘Union of Two Natures’, G_d and Man, and so he has been portrayed in the Western tradition ever since. But many Christians still can’t reconcile these two natures in a way that makes sense to non-Christians and, more often than not, themselves.
We now know with the benefit of modern science that we’re all physical (material beings formed out of the waves and particles that make atoms, cells and human tissue) and ‘divine’ (spiritual, formed out of and by consciousness) at the same time. But this is not what the revered ecclesiastics at Chalcedon had in mind.
The Trinity is one of the most contorted theories of theology ever conceived. It confuses Christians and non-Christians alike. It presents obstacles in discussions with other religions. If you believe it, it’s true – for you. But as always, something doesn’t have to be true for people to believe it!
©David Lawrence Preston, 30.8.2016
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Balboa Press, 2015