Thursday, October 15, 2015
The Origin of the Doctrine of the Trinity in the Christian Church 1883
THE ORIGIN OF THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY IN THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH.
Article in the Morning Light 1883
See also The Pagan Origin of the Trinity - 60 Books on CDrom
THAT God is One, absolutely One-One in Essence and in Person-is the corner-stone of true theology.
The acknowledgment of this truth was a primary feature of distinction between Judaism and the systems of religion that prevailed in the nations around them. Moses and the prophets alike dwelt on this theme, and the Founder of the Christian religion, though departing in many respects from the ideas of them of old time emphatically confirmed their testimony upon this subject. The apostles, taught by Him, departed not from the lines laid down by their great Master. And yet to-day, among those professing to derive their ideas from the prophets, the Messiah, and the apostles, as laid down in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the true standard of Christian doctrine is supposed to be expressed in a creed, which, while admitting that we are forbidden by the Catholic religion to say, There be three Gods, emphatically declares that we are compelled by the Christian Verity to acknowledge that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God, and that every one of these persons is to be acknowledged as by Himself God and Lord.
The object of this essay is to endeavour to set forth in clear and simple terms the ORIGIN of this doctrine of the Trinity, which (practically) declares that the "Christian Verity" is opposed to the "Catholic Religion." The space at our disposal being limited, we cannot enter into minute details, but we hope to be able to set forth sufficient evidence to warrant the conclusion, that the
doctrine to which we refer may fairly be classed among the corruptions of Christianity, as one of the numerous departures from "the simplicity that is in Christ."
It is matter of history, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, that the infant Church, established by the Lord Jesus Christ was, at a very early period of its existence, harassed by efforts to inoculate it with the superstitions and observances of decayed Judaism. Strong and persistent efforts were made to impose upon Gentile converts to Christianity the ceremonial ordinances of the old covenant This was the first symptom of dissension and declension in the Church. The first Council of the Church was held at Jerusalem (A.D. 49), for the purpose of giving a deliverance concerning the conduct of certain men who interfered with the mission of Paul and Barnabas at Antioch, by teaching the converts that unless they were circumcised after the manner of Moses they could not be saved. It was to still the dissension caused by this teaching that a deputation from Antioch went to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles and elders. The apostle James, acting as the mouthpiece of the Council, decided that the Gentile converts should not be troubled with the mere ceremonials of Judaism.
But notwithstanding this emphatic and apparently unanimous deliverance thus promptly given, the attempt to infuse the dead elements of Judaism into the living body of the Church of Christ continued, and a considerable section of the Church endeavoured in many ways to prove the compatibility of Judaism and Christianity, and to make Christianity palatable to the Jews.
Had these efforts been confined to the attempt to thus reconcile Moses and Christ, the mischief would have cured itself in a short time; but unfortunately other corrupting agencies were at work. The efforts put forward by Peter and Paul to mission the Gentiles brought the advocates of Christianity into connection with the various systems of heathenism then prevalent in that part of the world, and with a learned and influential class of Jews residing in the great centres of trade and knowledge. In the first centuries of the Christian faith, Judaism was not so wholly severed from idolatry as in the days of Joshua. The spirit of compromise, so favourable to good-fellowship but so fatal to truth, was very prevalent. The Old Testament had been translated into Greek on the one hand, and on the other hand an acquaintance with Oriental and Greek philosophy was sought after by the more scholarly Jews. Thus an intercourse was established between the adherents of Judaism and the various schools and sects of heathen philosophers. The Jews, in order to commend their Sacred Books to the learned Greeks and others, adopted various systems of allegorical interpretation, by the aid of which they professed to find the leading principles of the Platonic philosophy embodied in the law and the prophets.
Many of the early Christians, infected by the desire to commend the new theology to the heathen, employed very similar means. The terms of the Platonic and Alexandrian philosophy were largely used in the writings of the early Christian fathers, "orthodox" and "heretical." The remains of the epistles and works of nearly all the early advocates and opponents of Christianity bear testimony to the prevalence of this attempt to minimize the force of the distinctive features of heathenism on the one hand, and Judaism and Christianity on the other, by affecting to find the germs of the great principles of life and doctrine alike in all the systems. Dr. Pinnock in his Analysis of Ecclesiastical History, gives a clear account of the chief causes that led to this compromise between Judaism and heathenism in the first place, and subsequently between these two and Christianity: "Alexandria, the central spot between the Eastern and Western world, was founded by Alexander the Great, B.C. 332, and peopled by him with colonies of Greeks and Jews. The city quickly grew into vast importance, and became the regal capital of Egypt under the Ptolemies. Its population was very great, ad two-fifths of them were Jews. The encouragement given to learning by Ptolemy Sotor and his son Philadelphus brought to Alexandria the most celebrated philosophers of the East as well as from Greece and Rome, and it possessed the finest library and museum in the world. It may naturally be inferred, therefore, that the constant intercourse of the Jews, who had been separated for centuries from their original country, with these eminent men must have had a powerful influence over their religion their language, and their manners. Many were attracted by the charms of Greek literature and philosophy, and became so thoroughly Hellenized as to lose their great reverence for their ancient holy superstitions and holy writings, and to sacrifice their purity for an admixture of human philosophy, striving even to prove to the Greek that the Jewish Holy Scriptures harmonized with the spirit of their Platonism; whence originated that speculative theology which spiritualized everything in Scripture, and in subsequent ages disturbed the unity of the Christian doctrine." Kurtz, the Lutheran historian, in his _History of the Christian Church to the Reformation_ devotes a chapter to the 'Dangers accruing from a leaven of Judaism and heathenism remaining in the Church' in the course of which he says: 'Of almost greater danger to the Church than even the direct hostility of Jews and Pagans were certain Jewish and heathen elements imported into the Christian community."
Mosheim corroborates the opinion of Dr. Pinnock as to the corrupting influences of the Oriental and Greek philosophy among the Jews, and endorses the views of Professor Kurtz as to the dangerous tendencies of the Oriental philosophy: "It was from the bosom of this pretended Oriental wisdom that the chief of these sects, which in the three first centuries perplexed and afflicted the Christian Church, originally issued forth. These supercilious doctors, endeavouring to accommodate to the tenets of their fantastic philosophy the pure, the simple, and sublime doctrines of the Son of God, brought forth, as the result of their jarring composition, a multitude of idle dreams and fictions, and imposed upon their followers a system of opinions which were partly ludicrous and partly perplexed with intricate subtilties, and covered over with impenetrable obscurity."
Of course, in this intermixing of the Christian and Pagan doctrines, the question of the Godhead could not escape frequent consideration. We are of opinion that to this cause, rather than to any misunderstanding of the teaching of the New Testament, we owe the development of the doctrine of the Trinity of Three Divine Persons.
Bishop Browne, an able defender of the doctrine of the Trinity, justly remarks that "the history of the doctrine of the Trinity may be considered as almost equal to the history of Christianity," and in his learned defence of that doctrine states, "It has been thought, with considerable reason, that there are distinct intimations of it (1) in the Jewish Writings, (2) in the mythology of most ancient nations, (3) in the Works of Plato and other philosophers." In relation to the assertion that the Jewish Writings contain distinct intimations of the doctrine of the Trinity, the Bishop is obliged to admit that "the question concerning the Jewish opinions on the Trinity must be considered as one which is not fully decided," although he subsequently endeavours to prove that "in the Old Testament there are decided intimations of a plurality in the Godhead." The evidence adduced in favour of this plea is extremely weak, a weakness for which the reader is prepared by the prefatory observation: "The Jews, indeed, were placed in the midst of idolaters, themselves easily tempted to idolatry; and, being subjects of a carnal dispensation, were but little capable of embracing spiritual truth, may therefore probably have been in mercy, to prevent the danger of Tritheism, that the doctrine of the Unity was so strongly insisted on, and so little said of a Trinity or plurality of persons." The Bishop goes on to say that he does "not insist on the plural form of the name of God, because the Hebrews use plurals at times to express greatness or intensity; and such may have been the force of the plural in the name Elohim. But in the history of creation (Gen. i. 26, 27), it is certainly remarkable that God said, "Let us make man in our image," and then it is added, "So God created man in His own image . . . . " The same plural expression occurs after the fall, when God says, "The man is become as one of us;" and at the confusion of Babel, "Let us go down and confound their language." We cannot conceive the Infinite Creator thus coupling any finite creature with Himself.
Just premising that the force of the last sentence quoted is entirely destroyed by the author's own quotation from Gen. iii. 22, we cannot help regarding this argument as "certainly remarkable." If the use of the plural form of the pronoun proves anything in the direction implied by its quotation in this connection by Trinitarians, logically and grammatically it proves a plurality of Gods. But from this conclusion, stated in plain terms, the minds of Trinitarians revolt. Is not the use of the plural form to express greatness or intensity just as common in pronouns as in nouns? Is not the common form of "Royal Proclamation" in England, "WE, Victoria, by the grace of God," etc.? Those who advance this Old Testament argument in favour of the doctrine of the Trinity, place themselves between the horns of a dilemma - believing, as they do, in the special Divine inspiration of the Scriptures. Either the Lord intended to teach the doctrine of the Trinity to the Jews, or He did not. If He did intend to teach the doctrine, how is it that it is not taught as plainly as the Unity of God? If he did not intend to teach the doctrine to the Jews lest they should fall into the errors of Tritheism, why should we assume that the doctrine is INTIMATED by Him in the Old Testament? The National Cyclopedia, article TRINITY, says: "In the Old Testament this doctrine cannot be said to hold a prominent place. The great doctrine therein taught is the Unity of God as opposed to polytheism."
Other writers have remarked upon the paucity of Old Testament evidence in favour of the doctrine of the Trinity. "The Jews," says Eusebius, "were not taught the doctrine of the Trinity on account of their infant state." The truth of the matter is correctly surmised by Bishop Browne in the passage we have already quoted - if the Jews had been taught the doctrine of the Trinity, it would have led them into the danger of Tritheism. for that is the idea contained in the doctrine of Three Divine Persons in the Godhead, although the Catholic religion forbids us to say there be Three Gods.
The attempt to trace the origin of the doctrine of the Trinity to the Jewish Writings is a failure. But when we proceed to the examination of the other probable sources of information upon this subject, viz., the mythology of ancient nations and the Works of Plato and other philosophers, we are rewarded by the discovery of an abundance of evidence. This evidence is thus referred to by Bishop Browne: "In the mythology of all ancient nations, it is plain that the number Three has been a sacred number. The triads of classical mythology (e.g. Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades; or, again, Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva in the Capitol) are well known. More remarkable by far is the Trimourti of Hindostan. Christians have frequently believed that the Trimourti originated in some patriarchal tradition; whilst unbelievers have found in it an argument against the Christian faith, as being merely a development of the many speculations concerning God which have prevailed in India and elsewhere." From this passage we learn that the idea of a Trinity was common to many (if not all) the ancient nations, a fact that may tend to throw some light upon its proper relation to Christianity. We are aware that Bishop Browne (whom we follow so closely because he is a recognised authority, from the orthodox standpoint) tries to weaken the force of the idea that naturally suggests itself on discovering the similarity that exists between the doctrine of the Trinity and that of the Trimourti: "The whole significance of the Trimourti is utterly unlike that of the Trinity, the likeness being in number only. Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva were no tripersonal unity, but three distinct, created divinities, embodiments of the various powers of nature, though subsequently both Vishnu and Siva were" by their respective votaries, identified with the Great Supreme." As a matter of fact, however, the Hindu demurs to the idea that the doctrine of the Trinity is a belief in a "tripersonal unity" at all, but avers that, on the contary, it teaches clearly that there are Three Persons, or three Unanimous Gods; but is very hazy in its teachings concerning the Unity of God. The author of a pamphlet entitled, A Hindu Gentleman's Reflections, whose acceptance of Christianity depends evidently upon his being able to grasp a clear idea of the Unity of God, says: "I could no more believe in the mystery of a Trinity in Unity, or of a Tripersonal God, as it is called, than I could believe in three dollars being in one dollar, or three apples in one apple; the very notion being paradoxical on the face of it. All the eloquence and learning employed in giving the distorted notion a consistent shape -a shape which could exactly tally and harmonize with the idea of the Unity of God-appeared to me, after all, a long cobweb of stultiloquence, calculated by no means to leave a durable and satisfactory impression on the mind. I could more easily believe in the Hindu Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, the manifestations of the three Gunas or qualities in the Prakriti or Divine Energy." To an outsider, it is quite certain that the doctrine of the Trinity is as distinctly Tritheistic as is that of the Hindu Trimurti.
So, also, in relation to the views of Plato and the Greek philosophers, our authority says: "After the Christian revelation . . . . philosophic Christians, and, still more, philosophic heretics, early used Platonic terms to express Christian doctrines. Hence the language of philosophy became tinged with the language of Christianity; hence, too, at a very early period, the heretics using the language of Platonism corrupted Christianity with Platonic philosophy." Though we should differ from the authority as to who were the heretics in this controversy, we accept this statement as historically true. Probably the first departure from the doctrine of the Unity of God was that tenet of Gnosticism which supposed a kind of dualism or divided empire between God and matter. A remarkable instance of the manner in which the views of the heathen philosophers were taken into account, and even used as arguments in favour of certain doctrines, including the Doctrine of the Trinity, is apparent from the words of Justin Martyr in his Apology. Having spoken of Christ as the Son of God, he says: "This cannot be new to those who speak of Jupiter as having sons, and especially Mercury as his interpreter and the instructor of all men;" and again, "If Christ be a mere man, yet He deserves to be called the Son of God, on account of His wisdom, and the heathens called God (i.e. Jupiter) the father of gods and men; and if in an extraordinary manner he be the Logos of God, this is common with those who call Mercury the logos that declares the will of God." Justin Martyr, it must be remembered, is the first Christian writer of whom we have any considerable literary remains, and he is claimed by Trinitarians as asserting in substance the doctrine of the Trinity. He is, we see, not only conversant with heathen philosophy, but evinces a desire to show that on this crucial question of the Logos, Christianity was not inconsistent in many respects with Platonism.)
The controversy turned largely upon the question of the Logos, who in Christ had become incarnate, as declared by St. John, and about the relation. of the Logos to the Father, and every step in the controversy in the direction of belief in a Tripersonal God was a virtual concession to heathen philosophy.
It must also be conceded by Trinitarians that the doctrine of the Trinity, as now believed in, did not find general acknowledgment until the fourth century, and Bishop Browne says: "We must not expect to find the first Christian writers using the same technical language to express their belief in it which afterwards became necessary when heresy sprang up and gave rise to definite controversial terms."
There is no real historical basis for supposing that the doctrine of the Trinity was generally accepted by the early Christians. On the contrary, the whole tenor of the facts of ecclesiastical history is to show that the doctrine was developed and finally adopted as a means of destroying a supposed heresy after more than two centuries of bitter controversy. It was promulgated by the Councils of Nice and Constantinople in a form intended to silence rather than to convince. The doctrine of the Trinity, as set forth in the authorized creeds, savours of the things that be of men rather than of those that be of God. It has all the mark of human handiwork upon it, being complex and bewildering. The religion of Jesus Christ, was doubtless never intended by its Author to be a religion of stereotyped forms and opinions. Indeed, one of its essential features is that it stimulates freedom of inquiry in the search after truth. It is quite possible, therefore, that great variety, and even divergence of opinion, may exist within the pale of the Church of Christ. But the doctrine of the Trinity can scarcely be regarded as a legitimate outgrowth of the principles of Christianity-rather was it the fruit of years of contention and acrimonious disputation, a result arising from the professed disciples of the Lord not knowing what manner of spirit they were of.
The advocates of the Trinity sometimes assert that that doctrine was held even by the apostolic and primitive Church; but the evidence upon which they base the assertion is characterised by the conspicuous absence of reference to the idea of Three Divine Persons. During the first three centuries, the only authorized creed of Christendom was that known as the Apostles' creed, which contains nothing that clashes with the firmest belief in the absolute unity of God. But the controversies evoked by the views of Arius, which were manifestly founded largely on the Platonic doctrine of pre-existence, and by the theories of others, who, basing their arguments also on Grecian philosophy, contended for a belief in a Divine Son of God, eternal as the Father, led to the most strange and divergent opinions.
The famous Council of Nice, which first gave authority to the doctrine of the Trinity, assembled in the year 325. This Council of bishops, concerning which there is a lack of detailed information, was summoned by Constantine the Great, mainly for the purpose of arriving at a decision upon the controversies respecting the Logos. The long-pending dispute was doing mischief to the Church, and after at least two centuries of acrimonious discussion, it was generally felt that the time had arrived for coming to a decision that would be likely to be received as authoritative. There had been many Church Councils of local authority and influence for the purpose of settling controversies that raged within small areas; but the question of the Logos was debated everywhere.
The Council of Nice is known in history as the First General or Ecumenical Council, because the Church throughout all the world was supposed to be represented therein. From every quarter, even from Britain, the bishops assembled at Nice to give peace to the Church on the question of the Logos and one or two minor questions. But they utterly failed to bring peace. Instead of falling back upon the language of the Apostles' Creed they devised a new one. The great work of the Council was the adoption of the NICENE CREED as far as the clause commencing, "I believe in the Holy Ghost."
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