I would now like to wrap up this rather long thread on where the Trinity came from. When I started the thread, sometime back in the 19th century, I had imagined it would take three or four posts. But then I realized that it would give me an opportunity to talk about all sorts of important things: the early Christian idea of God, the divinity of Christ in relation to the Father, the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, and so on. But now I will try a one-post synopsis.
The earliest Christians inherited a strict monotheism from Judaism. Not all Jews were monotheists. Over history, some worshiped other gods; others worshiped the one God of Israel but acknowledged other gods existed (making them henotheists or monolatrists) ; others said there was only one God and the other gods simply didn’t exist. Most Christians came to take that view – or at least to say that the other gods, if they existed, were demons.
Jesus himself appears to have been a strict monotheist. As were his followers. Jesus taught that the end of the current age was at hand; the forces of evil that controlled this age – the devil, his demons, and all the other nefarious powers making life miserable, including all the humans who sided with them, in particular those who were rich, famous, influential, and powerful – all these forces would soon be destroyed by a cosmic and decisive act of God, when he intervened in this corrupt world and returned it to the glorious Paradise for his chosen ones that he had originally designed.
Jesus thought that God was soon to send a cosmic judge from heaven, the Son of Man, who would set up God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus believed he himself would be made the king of that kingdom. In that sense, he was the messiah. His twelve disciples would be rulers of the kingdom serving under him. Those who followed his teaching and did what God wanted them to do would be brought into the kingdom. All others would be left outside and eventually destroyed.
Those followers of God who had already died would be physically raised from the dead to enter that kingdom, brought back to life in the body to enjoy Paradise here on earth forever. This was to happen within Jesus’ generation.
Jesus proclaimed this message to Jews in his part of the world, rural Galilee. He then decided to take the message to the heart of Judaism, Jerusalem, at the busiest time of the year, the Passover Festival. While there he proclaimed his message, but the Jewish and Roman leaders did not take kindly to it, since a central part of the message was that they were among the forces of evil soon to be destroyed; fearing a riot, the Jewish leaders handed Jesus over to the governor Pontius Pilate who charged him with claiming to be the (future) king of the Jews (which he did claim) and crucified him for insurrection against the state.
That ended the disciples hopes that the kingdom soon to appear, that all people would be raised from the dead, that Jesus would be the king in Jerusalem, and they would rule under him.
But some time later they came to believe Jesus himself had been raised from the dead, based on visions that some of them saw or believed they saw. The disciples immediately drew two sensible conclusions (sensible from their apocalyptic point of view, which they had shared with Jesus himself):
- The resurrection of the dead has now started. It was to happen at the very end of time; someone has been raised; and so the resurrection has begun. Therefore: the end is now here. All history will be brought to a crashing halt and the kingdom will soon arrive.
- Since Jesus was raised but was no longer with them, he must have been taken up to heaven to live with God. Throughout ancient cultures – Greek, Roman, and Jewis – it was believed that if someone was taken to heaven he was made into a divine being. And so right off the bat, virtually as soon as they came to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead, his followers concluded that he had become God, in some sense. He was obviously not God the Father. But he was a divine being
The movement toward a doctrine of the Trinity begins with the earliest Christian belief among Jesus’ strictly monotheistic followers that Jesus was in some sense God, but that God the Father was God, and yet there was only one God.
As time went on and Christians thought about it more and more, they elevated what it meant to say that Jesus was God, developing “higher” Chrisstological views.. These developments did not happen all at the same time or in the same way; different Christians thought (and still think) different things, at the same time. But some Christians came to believe that Jesus became divine not at the resurrection but at his baptism; others thought it happened at the point of his conception; others thought that he had been divine before coming into the world. All these views are represented in the New Testament itself.
As more time passed, yet “higher” Christologies became popular, including the idea that Christ actually was God the Father, in a different mode of existence (just as I’m both a father and a son at the same time, but am obviously just one person). This view, and many others, came to be declared a heresy.
By the early fourth century virtually every Christian on record believed that Jesus was God, that he was distinct from the Father, and yet here was only one God. Debates about how it worked came to a head at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, where one group of leading bishops, backing the teacher Arius of Alexandria, argued that Christ had been begotten as the Son by God the Father at some point in eternity past and was a subordinate deity who then had created the world and later became incarnate to bring salvation; the other side backed Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria,, who argued that there never was a time when Christ did not exist – he was co-eternal and equal in every way with the Father, of the very same “essence” or “substance.”
Alexander’s side prevailed at the Council of Nicea, though the debates raged on for decades. That, though, became the orthodox view.
While the debates about Christ were happening, lesser debates were going on about the Holy Spirit. These debates were not as heated or seen as so central. It had long been thought by Christians that there was another divine force in the world, far greater than the angels, a representation of God himself in some way, yet not identical with either the Father or The Son.
The Spirit was originally understood to have come upon the Christian community in fulfilment of the prophecies of Scripture (esp. Joel 2). The New Testament itself highlights the importance of the Spirit of God as God’s presence among his people during Jesus’ absence, from Paul, to Acts, to the Gospel of John. The Spirit became increasingly important over time, as the return of Jesus in judgment was more and more delayed. Since the church was apparently to be here for a period of time, it was thought that God had not abandoned Jesus’ followers after he had left but had provided them with another divine presence in the person of the Spirit, who empowered the church to do its mission, supported them in their sufferings, and instructed them through the authority of both the Father and the Son.
Since the Spirit was also sent by the Father, to be “another” Paraclete (= helper/advocate/counselor/supporter) in Jesus’ place, it came to be thought that he must be equal with the Son who was equal with the Father. God was three persons all of whom interacted with the world and the people in it.
By the fourth century it was understood that all three were equally God. The Trinity is not a hierarchy. No one is subordinate to the other. The three persons are all distinct; they each have a different function; but they are “one” in their will, views, knowledge, power, eternality, and even essence – in every way equal. But not identical.
And so there are three persons, all of them distinctly God. But there is only one God. That’s the doctrine of the Trinity. There aren’t three Gods. But there are three persons who are God. And those three are one.
If you think that’s not logical following the Hellenistic forms of logic that we’ve inherited as developed in the West and handed down to us in refined forms from the Enlightenment, you would be right. Then again, a lot of reality doesn’t seem logical on those grounds. Believers tend to believe the doctrine and say it’s a mystery. Unbelievers tend to scratch their heads.