Where was the Trinity in the first century?

The Trinity as Post-Biblical Doctrine: Jesus, the disciples and first century Christ followers did not know the Trinity

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT

The period of the Enlightenment saw great theological dissent among the Christian intellectuals of Europe. Great minds like John Milton and Isaac Newton, who were the intellectual giants of their time, abandoned the faith of their forefathers in the Trinity and became quite opposed to it. They maintained, contrary to many Christians today, that the Trinity was a human invention that came much later in the history of the church and it most certainly did not exist in the ministry of Jesus or in the early days of apostolic preaching after Jesus’ departure from the scene. Noting this very important, distinguished scholar in the Renaissance studies Professor Gordon Campbell and colleague Emeritus Professor Thomas Corns write:

“From the perspective of the modern Christian consensus, Milton’s central aberration was his antitrinitarianism. Dissent from trinitarianism was, however, much more common among seventeenth-century Christians than among their twenty-first century successors. There was, for example, a widespread awareness that the doctrine of the Trinity was post-biblical, and that the central biblical proof text for the Trinity (1 John 5:7) was a medieval forgery inserted into Bibles to support a trinitarian doctrine that had been erected on a disconcertingly thin biblical base.” [1]

In the view of Campbell and Corns, the fact that the Trinity was an idea that was brought forth after the first century, which would be the post-biblical period, was a pervasive historical position already held in western academia several hundred years ago. In Cambell and Corns’ scholarly estimation, the doctrine is founded on such flimsy biblical textual evidence that irresponsible medieval hands had to concoct an entirely novel verse, i.e., 1 John 5:7, that would support the belief, which they forced upon the Bible in hopes of fooling the unlearned that the doctrine has biblical backing.

If we had a time machine to take us all the way back to the first century and bring Trinitarians along, it wouldn’t be surprising to find the followers of Jesus in those days appraising the Trinity as an odd and exotic concept. They would not be able to recognise the doctrine of the Trinity because neither their master Jesus nor his immediate disciples ever taught it to them. They would surely find it strange and in direct contradiction to their simple monotheistic faith as preserved in Mark 12:22 wherein Jesus reiterates the Mosaic creed of monotheism in Deuteronomy 6:4 without a change of an iota.

Likewise, Warren Carter, who is Professor of New Testament at Brite Divinity School, lends his expert testimony concerning the Trinity’s late emergence in Christian history:

“Contemporary Christian readers might solve the dilemma by pointing to the Christian understanding of the Trinity. But in the late first century, such an understanding did not exist. God was not understood as a triune being whose three persons share the same essence or being. This trinitarian understanding would emerge in subsequent centuries, partly as readers wrestled with the gospel’s difficult claims.” [2]

Though we gladly note Carter’s recognition of the fact that the followers of Jesus in the first century were not in any way triune and that the Trinity actually made its appearance only in later centuries, an even more crucial point that we should highlight is Carter’s astute appraisal of the reason behind the emergence of the Trinity, which in his words were due to readers who “wrestled with the gospel’s difficult claims.” This means that the gospel is devoid of explicit and direct instructions regarding the Trinity so that the doctrine emerged not out of clear cut biblical teachings but out of interpretations of what the Bible says; therefore, the Trinity has not been constructed upon the biblical material but on what men have said.

The 19th century American periodical ‘Christian Examiner,’ which was a prominent Christian publication at the time, lends its weight on the fact that the Trinity was not the product of the first century CE. In fact, it adamantly dismisses the doctrine as a later invention that has no roots in the early church:

“The controversy went on; and in 381 another Council at Constantinople put the ‘finishing touch,’ as Mosheim calls it, to the doctrine of the Trinity. From this date, and not before, it became the doctrine of the church. In the year 440 it had become so established, that the Doxology, which had been hitherto, like those of Scripture, an ascription to the one God, the Father, took the unscriptual form in which it has since passed down through the Romish to the English and other Orthodox churches; perpetuating, by its incessant repetition and its alliance with music, the error which it so sonorously set forth. At length, in the fifth century was fabricated the Athanasian creed, we know not by what ruffian hand, certainly not by that of Athanasius,– Vigilius of Thapsus has the credit of it, –which excelled all previous annunciations of the mysterious dogma in the ingenious variations of its paradoxical assertions, and in the heartiness of its unqualified anathemas. Now we say, that if all history were silent, if no record had come down to us respecting the faith of the first centuries, these creeds themselves would furnish incontrovertible evidence that the doctrine of the Trinity did not exist prior to the middle of the fourth century, and that it was a corruption, gradually introduced, of the true original doctrine.” [3]

The above provides a rather good account on the development of the doctrine of the Trinity and besides pinpointing precise dates, which we appreciate as quite useful, it does a great service in informing readers that the so-called Athanasian Creed was not even authored by the person to which it was attributed. The Alexandrian bishop Athanasius remains conveniently associated with this creed partly due to some dubious medieval account that attributes him as its author, but scholars have rejected the attribution since the 1600s. In scholarly terminology, it is a pseudonymous piece of work, which is why it is alternatively called the ‘Pseudo-Athanasian Creed.’ This is an important point, because as the ‘Christian Examiner’ says the Athanasian Creed “excelled all previous annunciations of the mysterious dogma.” That is to say, no other creed prior to the Athanasian Creed articulated the doctrine more clearly than did the Creed of Athanasius. Although the Nicene Creed of 325 CE*, which preceded the Athanasian Creed, appears accommodating to the Trinity, especially with regards to the Father and the Son, it does not furnish the terminological particulars necessary for any meaningful explication of the Trinity. The Athanasian Creed was the first of its kind to explicitly identify the three persons of the Trinity and designate each and every one of them as deity. This creed was so Trinitarian in its nature and presentation that it was the first major creed to actually mention the Trinity by name and introduce the phraseology “three in one” (i.e., ut unum Deum in Trinitate, which means ‘one God in Trinity’). According to the ‘Christian Examiner’ in the excerpt quoted above, because the creeds that preceded the Pseudo-Athanasian Creed (e.g., the Apostles’ Creed, Novatian’s Creed) have no clear instructive language concerning the Trinity, they may be regarded as substantial evidence for the Trinity doctrine’s absence in the early centuries of Christianity. If the doctrine had actually been around from the beginning, it would surely have been included in at least some of the early creeds prior to the Pseudo-Athanasian Creed.

In sum, if we had the chance to present the Trinity doctrine to Jesus and his disciples in the first century CE, they would have seen it as a doctrine completely foreign to theirs. The Trinity took hundreds of years to develop and it was developed not by God but by men.

Notes:

[1] Campbell, G. & Corns, T. N. (2008). John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Carter, W. (2010). John: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic. p. 199

[3]Cheneviere, M. (1832). The Christian Examiner and General Review, Volume 12. Boston: Gray and Bowen. p. 42

* In the creed authorised by the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, the Holy Spirit is left out to dry as it is only mentioned in passing. Some half a century later, the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE amended the brief mention of the Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed and elevated its position to one that ought to be “worshipped and glorified.” Hence in just 50 years, the Holy Spirit transitioned from a position of obscurity to one that was highly praised and exalted. Because the Nicene Creed treats the Holy Spirit rather ambiguously and does not clearly define the manner of relationship shared by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, it would be wrong for Trinitarians to take the creed as a Trinitarian Creed.

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