Losing The Faith (13/22)

The Trinity

There is One God

“The object of our worship is the One God” (Tertullian: Apology, xvii). A characteristic teaching of the Christian faith from the beginning was that there is one God. In this respect, Christian teaching mirrored Jewish belief as opposed to pagan concepts of the time.

All who bore the name of Christ recognized this fact, and even when Trinitarian ideas had taken hold, the basic concept of One God was always declared. The inconsistency between monotheism and the doctrine of the Trinity, obvious to Jews and perhaps to pagans, was not admitted by trinitarians.

While exalted by many denominations today, the trinitarian concept was not part of the original gospel and took some time to develop in the early church. It began with confused ideas about the nature of Christ and his eternal relationship with the Father.

The Second Century

The Epistle of Barnabas speaks at length of the work and atoning sacrifice of Christ, and the author’s teaching appears to be scriptural.

Irenaeus makes some statements that are bold and true: “He created all things, since he is the only God, the only Lord, the only Creator, the only Father, alone containing all things, and Himself commanding all things into existence” (Against Heresies, II, i).

“The Father Himself is alone called God … the Scriptures acknowledge Him alone as God” (II, xxviii.4). “These (the apostles) have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ, the Son of God” (III, i, 2). “Neither the prophets, nor the apostles, nor the Lord Jesus Christ in His own person, did acknowledge any other Lord or God, but the God and Lord supreme … and the Lord himself handing down to his disciples, that He, the Father, is the only God and Lord, who alone is God and ruler of all” (III, ix, 1).

“Such, then, are the first principles of the Gospel; that there is one God, the Maker of the universe; He who was so announced by the prophets, and who by Moses set forth the dispensation of the law, which proclaim the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and ignore any other God or Father except Him” (III, xi, 7).

Such clear declarations of the unity of God would seem to leave no room for trinitarian teaching, and indeed, that dogma had certainly not been formulated when Irenaeus wrote late in the second century. It is very important to emphasize that the doctrine of the Trinity is foreign to New Testament teaching. It is not simply that the word “Trinity” and the phrases “God the Son” and “God the Holy Spirit” are nowhere used in the Bible (which, of itself means nothing), but the fact that the very concept of God as ‘three in one’ is never found in the Scriptures (God is always described absolutely as ‘one’, never ‘three in one’). As illustrated by the following quotations, trinitarian teaching developed slowly as a result of attempts to adapt Christian theology to ideas current in the Greek philosophical systems. The attempts began with ideas relating to the personal pre-existence of Christ.

The Pre-existence of Christ

Justin Martyr writes as follows late in the second century: “His Son, the Word, who also was with Him and was begotten before the works, when at first He created and arranged all things by Him, is called Christ” (Second Apology, vi). A Jewish antagonist calls Justin to task for his view that Christ was the angel who led the children of Israel. Trypho: “For you utter many blasphemies, in that you seek to persuade us that this crucified man was with Moses and Aaron, and spoke to them in the pillar of the cloud” (Dialogue with Trypho, xxxviii). There follows a lengthy argument in which Justin affirms this curious belief. However, it is noteworthy that Justin does not argue a trinitarian view; it would be some time before that doctrine would be fully defined.

“This Offspring was begotten by the Father before all things created” (Dialogue, cxxix). Justin Martyr assumed the apostle’s words in Col. 1:15, 16 (“For by him were all things created”) to refer to the Genesis creation, and this view came to be commonly accepted. Thus, in their misguided attempt to give honor to the Son, these men gradually went astray on the most fundamental teachings of Scripture – that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is a man descended from Abraham and David although born Son of God because of the miracle of the virgin birth (Matt. 1:1; Luke 1:35).
Irenaeus on the Sonship of Christ

From the end of the second century onward there would be much controversy about the nature of Christ and the relationship between the Father and the Son. It would, by the beginning of the fourth century, evolve into the trinitarian dogma. Irenaeus himself reflects the beginning of this confusion. Even as he declares the Father to be the only God, he sees the Son as having been with the Father before creation.

“For ‘shall reveal’ was said not with reference to the future alone, as if then only the Word had begun to manifest the Father when he was born of Mary, but it applies indifferently throughout all time. For the Son, being present with His own handiwork from the beginning, reveals the Father to all” (Against Heresies, IV, vi, 7).

Several New Testament passages were being misinterpreted by the writers of this period. In addition to passages already cited, the first chapter of John’s Gospel was interpreted incorrectly. The belief had evolved that Christ, as the Word, had been literally, as a person, with the Father in heaven before his birth in Bethlehem. At this point, however, the co-eternity that was later to characterize trinitarian teaching was not suggested. Instead, the belief was held that before creation, the Son emanated (was begotten) from the Father.

There were pagan sects, as well as gnostic groups at the time which personified the Logos (Word) as a deity, and this concept found its way into the church (Irenaeus: Against Heresies, II, xii).

J Banta.

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