The “Trinity”—Is it Really a Mystery?
Many Christians throughout the Christian Age have either struggled to understand the doctrine of the “trinity”—or have just given up and accepted it as a mystery. But, how could any Christian wonder about or question a doctrine that is one of the longest-held teachings affirmed by church Councils? Did or didn’t Jesus and the Apostles teach us that doctrine? Can a person really be a Christian if they do not believe in the “trinity”? After all, Apostle Paul said, “I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.” But, did he affirm that teaching at anytime?
Whether or not there are some unresolved, gnawing questions about the mystery of the “trinity” that just makes the heart and mind a little uncomfortable, do we really know that it is Biblically true? Where in Scripture do we find the word “trinity” or the concept: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit? How are three Gods really all in one and one in three? Is there a physical, spiritual or mystical unity of three? Or is there some other explanation of the relationship of Father, Son and holy Spirit?
Possibly we have been told that the “trinity” is beyond the reach of logic and reason because it was meant to be incomprehensible. Isn’t that what faith is all about? But is a “trinity” beyond the reach of Scripture and history? What does the historic record of Christianity teach us about the doctrine of the “trinity”? What do the Scriptures really teach us about a “trinity”? Doesn’t the Prophet Isaiah (1:18) tell us that God invites us, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord”?
Trinities in History
Actually, the concept of a “trinity” has been a prevailing belief for a very, very long time—even before Christianity. Besides worshipping innumerable minor deities, triads of gods also appeared in most of the ancient cultures: Sumer, Babylonia, Assyria, Egypt, India, Greece and finally Rome. The “mysteries” of the various empires (with which Israel had to contend) were copied in later centuries with the names of the gods being changed. While some incomprehensible ancient religious details changed, the essential ideas were the same. The Sumerians worshipped Anu (the Father), Enlil (the god of earth) and Enki (the lord of wisdom). The Egyptians worshipped Amun who was really three gods in one: Re was his face; Ptah his body and Amun his hidden identity—“combined as three embodiments or aspects of one supreme and triune deity” (W. Durant, Oriental Heritage, p. 201). Yet, one might ask, How do we know these trinities are not just misrepresentations of the real three-ness of God? (After all there were “flood stories” in every culture too—reminiscent of the Genesis account.)
Where did the idea of a three-in-one God originate? After the flood, Nimrod became a mighty one in the earth. “He was a mighty hunter before the Lord...and the beginning of his kingdom was Babel...out of that land went forth Asshur [Assyria] and builded Nineveh...” (Genesis 10:8-11). “Mighty hunter” was the title given to the great conquering warrior-monarchs of the time. In rebellion against God’s command to disburse and fill the earth, Nimrod built the Tower of Babel, became very powerful—and was even worshipped. Ancient Babylonians worshipped a first person of a Godhead: the Great Invisible, also the Spirit of God incarnate in the human mother and also the Divine Son. Nimrod was this “Son,” the first king of Babel, Babylon. Thus the first notion of a triune God was born (See, Alexander Hyslop, The Two Babylons).
In the immediate centuries before Jesus’ first advent, Plato, even in his deeply philosophical mode, proposed a “trinity” of sorts. “The Supreme Reality appears in the trinitarian form of the Good, the Intelligence, and the World-Soul” (G. Laing, Survivals of Roman Religion). Through all cultures, this perversion of the truth about God was handed down.
When Jesus Became God
The Fourth Century saw Constantine give Christians official security to prosper. But the path to religious harmony in his Empire was not as easily achieved. At Nicaea Constantine sided with Western Church Bishops who believed that God and Jesus were of the same substance and co-eternal. By contrast he rejected the Eastern Bishops’ position that Jesus was a created being. The decree at Nicaea would eventually be enthroned as “orthodoxy.” Disharmony would, however, persist. Persist, that is, until Theodosius I (in A.D. 381) capitulated to Ambrose of Milan and finally forbid dissent—cutting off all freedom of views contrary to the Nicene Creed. Thus after over three Centuries of Christian growth, Jesus “officially” became God.1
One culture, however, escaped this corruption of truth. In the family line of Shem, who was Noah’s firstborn son, came Abraham. He was called to leave the polytheistic culture “Ur of the Chaldees” (Genesis 11:31; 12:1, 2)—the ancient Babylonian empire. Abraham’s descendants were given the revelation of God by Moses at Mount Sinai. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD” (Deuteronomy 6:4). As recorded in holy Scripture neither Abraham nor his descendants—who remained faithful to the One God of Abraham—believed in or taught the idea of a “trinity” god.
Some Bible verses have been unsuccessfully pressed into use by supporters of a “trinity.” For example, the creation account of Genesis says, “God [elohim, plural] created the heavens and the earth” (1:1). However, this plural does not have to do with number; it is “plenitude of might” (Pentateuch & Haftorahs, The Soncino Press). Therefore, its verb “created” is singular, and thus would not indicate two gods, let alone three. Even the New Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges that the doctrine of the “trinity” is not taught in the Old Testament (Vol. XIV, p. 306).
While Jesus walked the earth, he clearly taught, “My Father is greater than I” and that it was his Father who sent him, “He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth Him that sent me” (Matthew 10:40). He consistently acknowledged God as the source of power for his miracles and finally implored his Father, “Not my will but thine be done.” How then can Jesus be co-equal with God if the Father is “greater”? How could he be co-eternal if he was the only begotten (Gk. monogenes2) of the Father? How could he be the one sent and also the Sender—and why would he pray to himself, “nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). Is the only answer, “It’s a mystery”?
1 See: Charles Freeman, AD 381; Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone, Out of the Flames;
Richard Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God.
2 For monogenes; see appendix 2 of booklet offered: The Lord Our God Is One Lord
Bible Mysteries Explained
If the “trinity” is supposed to be an inexpiable “mystery,” why did the Apostle Paul talk about revealing mysteries to Christians? “I would not have you ignorant of this mystery [about Jewish blindness] (Romans 11:25)”... “the revelation of the mystery (Romans 16:25)”... “the mystery hidden God hath revealed (1 Corinthians 2:7)....” Also, “Behold I show you a mystery (1 Corinthians 15:51)”...“having made known the mystery of his will (Ephesians 1:9)”...“to make known the mystery of Christ (Ephesians 6:19)”...“make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27)”... etc. So how did the Christian Church accept an unexplained, incomprehensible “mystery of the trinity” not taught by Jesus and the Apostles?
Defense Against Gnosticism
In the early church the Apostles needed to refute another rising belief system—Gnosticism. Gnostics considered “matter” (the material world) to be evil and sought salvation through knowledge. Gnostics believed the “mysteries” were meant to be understood only by intellectuals. Christ, the Gnostic said, entered Jesus at baptism and left just before he died on the cross! Addressing this budding heresy, the Apostle John wrote, “For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist” (2 John 7; also 1 John 4:1-3). Jesus’ humanity was repulsive to Gnostics. After the Apostles died, Christians over responded to Gnosticism by claiming not only did Jesus Christ come in the flesh as the Son of God, but that he was in fact God Himself—fully God and fully man!
By the Third and Fourth Centuries, Christians were weary of Pagan persecution. The temptation was to compromise. Besides, the Pagan emperor Constantine needed Christians to salvage his shaky empire. So Constantine embraced Christianity. Added to this convenient, compromising blend of politics and religion was the chief triumvirate of Roman gods—Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Jupiter was the principal deity of Roman mythology and Juno was the next highest divinity. Minerva, the “offspring of the brain of Jupiter” was regarded as the “impersonation of divine thought—the plan of the material universe of which Jupiter was the creator and Juno the representative” (McClintock & Strong, Vol. 6). Similarly, many Pagan ideas were actually incorporated into Christianity. “Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it” (W. Durant, Caesar and Christ, p. 595).
Councils, Creeds and Violence
The Fourth Century Nicaean statement of faith did establish a bias favoring the view that God and Jesus were of the same substance and co-equal. As a consequence, strongly held beliefs led to action. “Probably more Christians were slaughtered by Christians in these two years (342-43), than by all the persecutions of Christians by pagans in the history of Rome” (W. Durant, Age of Faith, p. 8).
Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, it was not Constantine’s Fourth Century Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 that formalized the “Doctrine of the Trinity.” It was the Athanasian Creed (written after the death of Athanasius) affirmed in the Fifth Century Council of Chalcedon, A.D. 451, that finally included all three, “the godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost...the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal...So likewise the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Ghost is God; and yet they are not three Gods, but one God.” Furthermore, this creed added that belief in the “trinity” “is necessary to everlasting salvation.”
Servetus and Calvin
The opposition over the teaching returned dramatically when Michael Servetus wrote and published a book, Christianismi Restitutio (Christianity Restored), in which he made his case for the Lord God’s Unity and wrote critically about John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. In response to doctrinal and personal criticism, Calvin was sufficiently personally inflamed to premeditate Servetus’ death—which was accomplished on October 27, 1553, when Servetus was burned at the stake over his books. However, much to Calvin’s surprise, his actions and method were soundly denounced by his peers (Goldstone, Out of the Flames). Calvin never repented of that vial deed.
Truth is Rational
Truly, our Christian belief is based on faith. But it is a faith based on the Scriptures—belief not born of the compromised traditions handed down through the centuries. When we say Jesus is the “Son of God,” we mean he was the Son of God. He received life from his Father. When we read what Jesus said, “I go to my Father,” we understand he meant he was on earth then he returned to his Father in heaven. When Jesus said, “Not my will, but thine be done,” he meant he wanted to do his Father’s will. He was not praying in agony to himself. God cannot die. Jesus really did die for our sins.
Really? Did Jesus actually die? Or, did he remain alive in some way? Apostle Paul, writing to Timothy (2 Timothy 2:1-4) explains that Jesus did die and provide a Ransom for mankind. In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul said (1 Corinthians 15:20-23) not only that Christ died, but that he rose again. Yes, Jesus was, as Adam, literally dead. Yes, Jesus was literally the only perfect, uncondemned man who could provide a Ransom (Greek: antilutron, a price that corresponds) for Adam. Thus Jesus provided an acceptable equivalent price to purchase Adam’s life rights and gain the right to bring back to life all of Adam’s children. Only an identical sacrifice—a perfect human life for a perfect human life—could accomplish that. Yes, Jesus really did die in Adam’s place.
God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit
The Bible record reveals that for four thousand years the Hebrews knew of no other concept of God. Abraham, Moses, Job, Noah, David—and all the other prophets and faithful—knew there was only One God: in other words, monotheism.
אֶחָֽד ׀ יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל שְׁמַ֖ע
“Hear, O Israel, The LORD, the LORD our God is One.”
Unmistakably, Jesus believed in only One God. He said, “My Father is greater than I” (John 14:28); “Why do you call me good? No one is good but one, that is, God” (Luke 18:19).
When Jesus told the Apostles he would send the holy Spirit, he said he would send another comforter (Greek: parakletos) not another God. When Jesus promised to send the holy Spirit, he was promising to cause the power of God as a transforming influence to benefit the minds of Christians (Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 2:16). Christians challenged by evil influences such as: the “spirit of fear” (2 Timothy 1:7), the “spirit of bondage” (Romans 8:15) and the “spirit of the world” (1 Corinthians 2:12), etc., are not persons. Certainly not! Neither is God’s holy Spirit a person—rather it is a holy transforming influence in our minds and characters. This oneness of mind or spirit explains how Christians can be one with each other and one with God.
What a wonderful prospect Christians have in the complete and final fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer, “Neither pray I for these alone but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us…” (John 17:20, 21). In glory, the called, chosen and faithful shall be one with each other and the Father and the Son—the same way God and Jesus are already one.
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