What do "Mormons" say about the origins of Nicene trinitarianism?
RBC Ministries begins their pamphlet by writing:
- Mormons [and other groups]....insist that the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity is unbiblical and is a hangover from the polytheism of Greek and Roman mythologies. (p. 1)
It is true that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do not consider Nicene trinitarianism to be a biblical doctrine. This is not, however, an idiosyncratic conclusion reached by the Latter-day Saints, but is amply attested to by scholars of all persuasions going back decades. It is indisputable, on textual and historical grounds, that Nicene trinitarianism requires concepts and ideas not found in the Bible.
The pamphlet is in error, however, for the reasons which most informed Latter-day Saints would give for the rise of Nicene trinitarian views. It is unlikely that Greek polytheism led to the Trinity, since Greeks philosophy believed that the ultimate, or supreme God was a Unity or "One." The necessity, in the Nicene view, of making sure that God the Father and God the Son were one in essence arose out of this Greek conviction that a perfect God required oneness.
In the Latter-day Saint view, the early Church succumbed to internal apostasy and dissension within a relatively short time period. LDS authors term this "the Great Apostasy." This very early fall from the fulness of Christ's gospel occurred because of the rejection of and death of the apostles.
With the passing of the apostles, revelation no longer guided the deliberations of the scattered, fragmented Christian church(es). Sincere, well-meaning leaders—and, doubtless, at least some leaders who sought to use religion for their own purposes—were left to articulate Christian doctrine as best they could. Many turned to the best, most sophisticated tools at their disposal: the philosophy of Greece.
This time-line of events is not mere supposition—it is amply demonstrated by the historical record, as we will now see.
Were the earliest Christians Trinitarians in a sense compatible with Nicea?
There is abundant evidence that “trinitarianism,” as now understood by the majority of Protestants and Catholics was not present in the Early Christian Church. Wrote the great scholar Emil Brunner more than half a century ago:
- When we turn to the problem of the doctrine of the Trinity, we are confronted by a peculiarly contradictory situation. On the one hand, the history of Christian theology and of dogma teaches us to regard the dogma of the Trinity as the distinctive element in the Christian idea of God, that which distinguishes it from the idea of God in Judaism and in Islam, and indeed, in all forms of rational Theism. Judaism, Islam, and rational Theism are Unitarian. On the other hand, we must honestly admit that the doctrine of the Trinity did not form part of the early Christian-New Testament-message. Certainly, it cannot be denied that not only the word "Trinity", but even the explicit idea of the Trinity is absent from the apostolic witness of the faith. The doctrine of the Trinity itself, however, is not a Biblical Doctrine...
Thus, while modern Christians—like RBC Ministries—are accustomed to think of Nicene trinitarianism as "the distinctive element in the Christian idea of God," it "did not form part of the early Christian-New Testament message." It was an innovation.
What were early Christian beliefs about God?
If Nicene trinitarianism was not Biblical and not part of the early Christian message, what did early Christians believe about God?
We do know that Christian orthodoxy before Nicaea was not the trinitarian creeds now popular:
- 'Subordinationism', it is true, was pre-Nicean orthodoxy.
‘Subordinationism’ is a doctrine which means that Jesus and/or the Holy Ghost are ‘subordinate’ or ‘subject’ to God the Father: i.e., they deferred to Him. In subordinationism, Jesus must be a separate being from the Father, because you can’t be subject to yourself. This was the orthodox position before the Nicean council. Ideas that were once orthodox were later considered unacceptable after the councils altered and added to the doctrine.
- Writers who are usually reckoned orthodox but who lived a century or two centuries before the outbreak of the Arian Controversy, such as Irenaeus and Tertullian and Novatian and Justin Martyr, held some views which would later, in the fourth century, have been branded heretical...Irenaeus and Tertullian both believed that God had not always been a Trinity but had at some point put forth the Son and the Spirit so as to be distinct from him. Tertullian, borrowing from Stoicism [a branch of Greek philosophy], believed that God was material (though only of a very refined material, a kind of thinking gas), so that his statement that Father, Son and Spirit were 'of one substance', beautifully orthodox though it sounds, was of a corporeality which would have profoundly shocked Origen, Athanasius and the Cappadocian theologians, had they known of it.
- It [subordinationism] is a characteristic tendency in much Christian teaching of the first three centuries, and is a marked feature of such otherwise orthodox Fathers as St. Justin and Origen…Where the doctrine [of the Trinity] was elaborated, as e.g. in the writing of the Apologists, the language remained on the whole indefinite, and, from a later standpoint, was even partly unorthodox. Sometimes it was not free from a certain subordinationism.
So, Christians whose ideas were completely orthodox earlier would have been considered ‘heretics’ (i.e., going against the accepted doctrine) after the Nicean councils. This seems to be clear evidence that the doctrine was radically changed.
One also notes that Paul and the other New Testament writers would have been likewise ‘unorthodox’. Eusebius, an early Church historian, was even termed "blatantly subordinationist" by a Catholic author.
Even after the trinitarian ideas were formed, there were three ‘camps’ of believers that understood the matter in very different ways:
- If such was the teaching of Athanasius and his allies [i.e., homousis as numerical unity of substance, rather than ‘the same kind of being’ in the three persons of the Godhead], at least three types of theology found shelter at different times in the anti-Nicean camp. The first, indefinite, on occasion ambiguous on the crucial issues, but on the whole conciliatory, reflects the attitude of the great conservative 'middle party'.... It's positive doctrine is that there are three divine hypostases [i.e., persons], separate in rank and glory but united in harmony of will.
Thus, most believers initially believed that there were three persons with a united will. It was only later that this group was overcome by Athanasius and his group’s brand of Trinitarianism, which is the basis for today’s understanding in most of Christianity. Indeed, Athanasius and his cadre were decidedly in the minority:
- The victory over Arianism achieved at the Council was really a victory snatched by the superior energy and decision of a small minority with the aid of half-hearted allies. The majority did not like the business at all, and strongly disapproved of the introduction into the Creed . . . of new and untraditional and unscriptural terms (emphasis added).
And, there is a noted tendency for some Christian writers to assume that the way they understand the nature of God is the only way in which anyone could have understood it. An evangelical scholar notes:
- The view of God worked out in the early [postapostolic] church, the "biblical-classical synthesis," has become so commonplace that even today most conservative [Protestant and Catholic] theologians simply assume that it is the correct scriptural concept of God and thus that any other alleged biblical understanding of God . . . must be rejected. The classical view is so taken for granted that it functions as a preunderstanding that rules out certain interpretations of Scripture that do not "fit" with the conception of what is "appropriate" for God to be like, as derived from Greek metaphysics.
RBC Ministries denies that "Greek metaphysics" (i.e., philosophy) played a role, but that is what the scholarship shows.
Why, then, was Nicean Trinitarian introduced at all?
- Let us return to the second century, when it was first sensed that the formulations of the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers were not sufficient to describe the nature of the divinity. A new way of doing this was attempted. Thus the so-called Monarchian controversy occurred... In addition to the Modalists (such as Sabellius), for whom Christ and the Holy Spirit were modes in which one Godhead appeared, there the Dynamists or Adoptionists, who conceived of Christ either as a man who was raised up by being adopted by God, or as a man filled with God's power.
Simply put, people tried a ‘new’ way of talking about God because of disputes about the nature and mission of Christ. In the LDS view, this is because the loss of revelation to the Apostles (due to the apostasy) meant that Christianity was divided about key issues. No one had a good way to resolve the questions, and so they turned to the best intellectual tools they had—they merged Christian theology with Greek philosophy.
Father Charles Curran, a Roman Catholic priest, said,
- We [the Christians] went through the problem of appropriating the word in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries with the great trinitarian and Christalogical councils where we finally came to the conclusion of three persons in God and two natures in Jesus. Many people at the time said, ‘Well, you can’t say that because those words aren’t in the scriptures.’ That’s right, they aren’t in the scriptures, they are borrowed from Greek philosophy, but they are the on-going account of the believing community to understand, appropriate and live the word of God in its own circumstances.
Do all Christians understand the Trinity in the same way?
Owen Thomas, a professor of systemic theology, noted that:
- ...our survey of the history of the [Trinity] doctrine in the text has indicated that there are several doctrines of the trinity: Eastern, Western, social analogy, modal, so forth. There is one doctrine in the sense of the threefold name of God of the rule of faith as found, for example, in the Apostle's Creed. This, however, is not yet a doctrine. It is ambiguous and can be interpreted in a number of ways. There is one doctrine in the sense of the Western formula of "three persons in one substance." However, this formula is also ambiguous if not misleading and can be interpreted in a number of ways. A doctrine of the trinity would presumably be one interpretation of this formula . . . let us assume that the phrase "doctrine of the trinity" in the question refers to any of a number of widely accepted interpretations of the threefold name of God in the role of faith.
So, there is ambiguity and disagreement still. This is not characteristic of revelation, but rather of man’s imperfect intellectual efforts to define God according to philosophical criteria.
As one current thinker about the Trinity writes:
- The notion that in the Trinity one Person may be the font or source of being or Godhead for another lingered on to be a cause of friction and controversy between the East and the West, and still persists today. The main thesis of these lectures, I have said, is that the act of faith required for acceptance of the doctrine of the Trinity is faith that the Divine unity is a dynamic unity actively unifying in the one divine life the lives of the three divine persons. I now wish to add that in this unity there is no room for any trace of subordinationism, and that the thought of the Father as the source or fount of God-head is a relic of pre Christian theology which has not fully assimilated the Christian revelation.
There is no room in his doctrine for ‘subordinationism’, but remember (already quoted above) that: "'Subordinationism', it is true, was pre-Nicean orthodoxy."
It is interesting that ideas that were once perfectly orthodox within early Christianity (like subordinationism) are now classed as “pre-Christian theology” which hasn’t yet “assimilated the Christian revelation”. If anything, this looks like a ‘post-Christian theology’ that has ‘altered the Christian revelation’. This observation is not intended to argue that subordinationism is correct in all particulars, but merely to point out that current creedal ideas are not what all Christians have always believed.
A move to change?
Some Christian theologians have recognized the above difficulties with the Nicene formulation of the trinity, and are advocating a removal of the Greek philosophical ideals that have unnecessarily clouded the issue:
- If we search for a concept of unity corresponding to the biblical testimony of the triune God, the God who unites others with himself, then we must dispense with both the concept of the one substance and the concept of the identical subject. All that remains is: the unitedness, the at-oneness of the three Persons with one another, or: the unitedness, the at-oneness of the triune God.
The historical and current views of Christians are not as uniform, or as biblical, as RBC Ministries wishes us to believe.
To learn more:
- [note] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1949), 205, 236.
- [note] Henry Bettenson, editor and translator, The Early Christian Fathers:A Selection from the Writings of the Fathers from St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius, (Oxford University Press: 1969), 239. ISBN 0192830090.
- [note] RPC Hansen, "The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD", in Rowan Williams, editor, The Making of Orthodoxy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 151–152.
- [note] FL Cross and EA Livingston, editors, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd edition, (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), 1319, 1394.
- [note] RL Richard, "Trinity, Holy", in New Catholic Encyclopedia, 15 vols., (New York:McGraw-Hill, 1967) 14:298.
- [note] JND Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (New York: Harper, 1978), 247–248.
- [note] IF Bethune-Baker, An Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine, 8th edition, (London: Methuen, 1949), 171. (emphasis added)
- [note] John Sanders; cited in Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 60.
- [note] Kurt Aland, A History of Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985), 1:190.
- [note] Charles Curran, "Creative Fidelity: Keeping the Religion a Living Tradition," Sunstone 11 (July 1987), 45. off-site Cited in Robert L. Millet, "Joseph Smith and Modern Mormonism: Orthodoxy, Neoorthodoxy, Tension, and Tradition," Brigham Young University Studies 29 no. 3 (1989), footnote 14.
- [note] Owen C. Thomas, Theological Questions: Analysis and Argument (Wilton, Conn.: Morehouse-Barlow, 1983), 34.
- [note] Leonard Hodgson, Doctrine of the Trinity (London: Nisbet & Co. Ltd., 1944), 102.
- [note] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, trans. Margaret Kohl (London: SCM, 1981), 150.