As you know, blog members at the Platinum level are allowed to publish posts on any topic of their choosing (related to blog interests!) to other Platinum members. After a month or so, the other Platinums vote on which one can appear on the blog at large. If you yourself are interested in getting in on that action — reading the posts of other Platinum members, and on occasion coming up with one of your own (it DOESN’T need to be highly scholarly or scholarly at all — it can be your own views or questoins about something blog-related!) — think about upping your membership to the Platinum level (Register – The Bart Ehrman Blog).
The most recent vote wenbt in favor of a post by Omar Robb, which gets into the world of Greek and early Christian thinking, especially as leading to the doctrine of the Trinity. Here it is. Feel free to comment and ask Omar any questions!
There is a clear relationship between the early Greek Christianity and the Greek metaphysical philosophy, and we will explore this here. But let us first show the genius of the Greek thinking process:
Let us take an object. This object can be divided into two objects. Then each one can be divided into two objects, and so forth. But this process of division cannot continue forever; otherwise all objects are just a combination of zeros. Therefore, there need to be an elementary object that cannot be divided. The Greek called this object: “the Atom”. We will call this object the “Greek Particle” to differentiate it from the physical atom that we now know.
This deduction is truly brilliant, and the difference between this conclusion and our current physical understanding is that it seems we have many different “elementary particles”, not just one. Electrons and quarks are considered (so far) elementary particles that cannot be divided into smaller parts.
In almost the same process of thinking, the Greek concluded that the Universe has been created by the “One”. They deduced this through the following:
Everything we are aware of has a cause for its existence: the book was caused (created) by an Author, the broken window was caused by a thrusting rock, etc. Each of these causes has also a cause, and each of these causes has a cause, and so forth. But this cannot continue forever. Therefore, there should be a cause that doesn’t have a cause. You could call this cause: the elementary cause, but the Greek called it: “The One” (Monad).
Therefore, the “One” is the ultimate cause for every existence in the universe. The Greek then theorized that: if the One doesn’t need a cause for existence, and he is the reason for the existence of others. Therefore, this “One” doesn’t need anyone and doesn’t need anything; he is all mighty with absolute perfection.
The Greek then started to study the properties of the “One”, but this was an extreme logical error: It is clear that the “One” (according to the Greek thinking) was outside the universe. In our current terminologies we could say that the universe is a closed system, and the “One” is an external entity to it. The rules, laws and axioms in a closed system might not be similar to the external system. Therefore, trying to analyze an external system by the laws of a closed system might end up with bizarre contradictions. This is exactly what happened when the Greek tried to analyze the properties of the “One” according the concepts and axioms of this universe.
The Greek have noticed that all things are changing, and all things are also temporal (i.e. not eternal). Therefore, the Greek linked the idea that all changes are temporal. This led to the idea that change is a property for all temporal objects, which means that the “Eternal” (i.e. the “One”) cannot change.
There was also a philosophical proof for this conclusion: if the One was all mighty and all perfect then this One cannot change, because change would either make the One more perfect, or less perfect, or it did nothing of the sort. If we took the first option then the One was not perfect before, which is not an accepted option. If we took the second option then the One is less perfect than before, and this also cannot be accepted. If we took the third option, then the change by itself is meaningless and cannot be expected from the One.
Therefore, the conclusion for the Greek philosophers that the One cannot change because the One is all mighty with absolute perfection.
But decisions are a sort of changes: if you make a decision today, then yesterday, you didn’t have that decision. Therefore, there has been a change within you between yesterday and today.
But the “One” cannot change. Therefore the “One” cannot have decisions. Therefore, the “One” cannot create the universe, because creating the universe requires a decision.
We will refer to this as the “Change Paradox” which is stated as: “The Eternal doesn’t need anyone and doesn’t need anything. Therefore, the Eternal is perfect. Therefore, the Eternal cannot change. Therefore, the Eternal couldn’t make decisions”.
This produced a bizarre contradiction between two conclusions (which we will call: Alpha and Beta):
- The Alpha conclusion: the “One” created the universe.
- The Beta conclusion: the “One” couldn’t create the universe, because he cannot change, therefore, he cannot make decisions.
There have been efforts from the Greek to resolve this contradiction. One of the given proposals is to assume “Intermediaries” between the “One” and the universe. These Intermediaries have been called: Gods or Demiurges.
However, this proposal contradicts with the Beta conclusion, because it assumes that the “One” has created these Intermediaries. But it seems that some philosophers were content with a model of few contradictions (i.e. the “One” had created few Gods whom they collaborated in creating and managing the universe) rather than a model with constant and endless contradictions (i.e. the “One” has created the universe and still managing it).
Later, some philosophers have proposed that the “One” didn’t decide to create the Intermediaries, but the Intermediaries have been created by the influence of the existence of the “One”. It is almost like the Sun didn’t decide to heat Earth, but Earth is heated by the Sun because of the Earth proximity to the Sun.
I need to clarify here that I am presenting these philosophical ideas in a “very simplistic format”. My interest here is not the “Who, What, and When”. My interest is to see the dynamics of things from a “high bird view” that would provide a clear sense to the philosophical ideas that influenced the Christian faith. It should be noted here that there were many intense arguments among the Greek philosophers concerning their metaphysical views.
Philo of Alexandria (20 BC- 50 AD) was a devoted Jew who also was professional in Greek philosophy. He made a lot of efforts to explain (align, merge) the Jewish metaphysics with the Greek philosophical ideas. The “Duo Model” was among these efforts. In this model, Philo recognized “Yahweh” (the God of Abraham) as the “One”. But, in order to keep his model within a good proximity to the Beta conclusion, he assumed that God created the “Word” (Logos), which refers to the knowledge and Intelligence, and this entity (the Word) created the Universe.
Now … there is a contradiction between this model and Beta as God has created an entity. Nonetheless, this model provided a proper compromise as it contains only one point of contradiction with Beta.
Although there are no explicit evidence, but it is highly likely that the first Greek Christians were very impressed with Philo’s model, but with minute modification: The God is still the same (i.e. the God of Abraham), whom the Christians named him “The Father”, and the “Word” is none other than Jesus himself. This can be clearly supported by the starting verse of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1.1-NIV).
It should be noted that many are preferring a different translation of this first verse of John: They argue that the original Greek verse is “En arche en ho logos, kai ho logos en pros ton theon, kai theos en ho logos” (Ref: Sigal). The first God in this text (ton theon) means “The God”, while the last God in the text (theos) means “God”. As the Greek language doesn’t have an indefinite article (a or an), therefore they argue whether the last God in the text should be translated as “The God” or “a God”. But reading this text as “a God” does fit exactly with Philo’s model: The One is the God and the Word is a God.
This Model of Philo has been altered by Justin Martyr (100-165AD), as Justin has added the Holy Spirit to this Duo Model.
[It should be noted here that there is no evidence that Justin took this trio model from Matthew’s Gospel (28:19). I am assuming here that this trio was first introduced by Justin. Therefore, I assume that the verse 28:19 in Mathew was probably added to the Gospel after Justin].
The Spirit was a major entity in Greek philosophy much before Justin: philosophers from old times had theorized that Humans are dual combination of Body (Matter) and Spirit (which literally means breath). Death happens when the Spirit leaves the Body. This wasn’t evident only in Greek philosophy, but it was also dominant in Hinduism and Buddhism.
As there was a clear identified entity in John Gospel which has been referred to as “the spirit of truth” (John 14:17), then it wasn’t surprising that Justin have added the Spirit in this duo model of Philo.
It is probable that the first Christians who were influenced by Justin model didn’t really think that Jesus himself was the creator of the universe. It seems to me that the intention was to recognize the three most important figures in the Christian faith: The One (i.e. the Father), the Word (i.e. the Son), and the Holy Spirit.
So, I would assume that Justin model was initially adopted metaphorically, but the highly defragmentation of Christianly at the first three centuries and the intense arguments that shaped this defragmentation led many churches to adopt the literal interpretation of this model. Therefore, there were many churches at the early fourth century who literally believed that Jesus was the Word that created the universe.
The “Trinitarian” Christians in the start of the fourth century could be classified into two groups:
1# The Christians who literally followed the model of Justin: They believed that Jesus is the Word of God, and he created the universe. But Jesus is not eternal, and he was created by God at some point. Therefore, Jesus was subordinate to God.
Arius (256-336 AD) was the famous advocate for this view.
2# There was another view that probably gained momentum from the mid of the third century: Jesus and God were equal entities. We could refer to this view as an effort to modify Philo’s Model in order to remove the point of contradiction in it. Their arguments were simple: Jesus is the Word of God and the Spirit of God. So, if Jesus was not eternal then there was a time when God was without word and without spirit!
Another argument for them is: God is “The Father”. But God cannot Change (Beta conclusion), therefore God was the Father from eternity. Therefore, Jesus was always the Son from eternity.
Alexander I (the Patriarch of Alexandria, died in 326 AD) was the famous advocate for this view.
These two famous advocates (Arius & Alexander) clashed at the early fourth century. This happened at the time when Constantine I adopted Christianity and wanted it to be the glue for the empire. He couldn’t allow this clash to hinder his plans, so he vigorously summoned a meeting for the highly influential priests in the empire in order to contain this clash. This was the “Council of Nicaea” in 325 AD.
I really don’t think that Arius had any chance to win the debate. Alexander was the Pope of a very influential church in the empire. Arius was just a Presbyter (senior member in the church). Major churches in the past three centuries formed an unofficial alliance against detected heretics. The first obvious action of this alliance is the unity of these churches against Paul of Samosata (the Bishop of Antioch) in 269 AD. Paul was a persistent advocate for Monarchianism; he believed that Jesus was just a man who was adopted by God. The major churches united in their effort to depose him, and it is really ironic that these churches requested the help of the Roman Pagan Emperor “Aurelian” for this purpose. It is wrong to think that the “Council of Nicaea” was the first Imperial-Christian council. The first council was held in 272AD, which was organized by Aurelian in order to decide the fate of Paul. The council concluded to depose Paul as the Bishop of Antioch.
Returning back to Arius and Alexander: The major churches in the empire had a stable unofficial alliance between them. According to “System Theory”: stable systems will resist any change that can disturb their stability. I could add more to this law: Stable but fragile systems will aggressively resist any change that can disturb their stability. Trinity was the common view at that time, but it was also fragile. By fragile I mean that this view cannot easily withstand logical scrutiny. If the council had favored Arius over Alexander, then there would have been a real risk of breaking the major churches in the empire.
I am not saying that there was a conspiracy to oppose Arius. Not at all. All of this happened instinctively within the group subconscious mind. I would assume that the Bishops in this council were embarrassed to oppose any view. But it was clear that the stakes were very high. So, my assumption here is that these Bishops were (instinctively) waiting for the right excuse to support Alexander.
The “Council of Nicaea” ended up supporting Alexander and dictating the view of the major churches at the time, which is the well-known Trinity doctrine.
Just a sidetrack here: there has been a serious clash between Cyril (the Pope of Alexandria) and Nestorius (the Pope of Constantinople) at the Council of Chalcedon in 451AD, and this council denounced Nestorius. So, here we have a “Pope vs Pope” rather than a “Pope vs Presbyter”. But still, I can apply the same previous dynamic understanding (Stable but fragile systems will aggressively resist any change that can disturb their stability): Nestorius had proposed a dramatic change in the doctrine. Therefore, it is expected for the major churches to unite against this change.
The rest is known history.
Ayres, Lewis: Nicaea and Its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (2004), Oxford
Sigal, Gerald: The First Verse In John Everyone Needs To Understand, Jews for Judaism, https://jewsforjudaism.org/knowledge/articles/new-testament-refutations-trinity-doctrine-part-21