The Death of the Trinity
By J.R. Ensey
The recent spate of articles and books that attempt to prop up the multi-person theory of God is another sign that the Trinitarian concept is dying. The authors know it. Efforts are underway to shore it up by restating the theory in a post-modern theological hermeneutic. 1 Within major denominations there is a sense of staleness and a lack of vitality about the doctrine. The miasma of death is upon it.
Why, after 1600 years of propagation and enforcement by the most powerful and influential entity on earth, would it come to this? Let me count the ways.
It is unintelligible.
Dr. Charles Ryrie affirms that theology must be intelligible: “The word ‘theology,’ from ‘theos’ meaning God, and ‘logos’ meaning rational expression, means the rational interpretation of religious faith. Christian theology thus means the rational interpretation of the Christian faith. Theology is intelligible. It can be comprehended by the human mind in an orderly, rational manner.”2 Agreed.
To explain the concept of a co-existent, co-eternal Father and Son is not possible. Eternal sonship is incomprehensible. Not that Christians are incapable of grasping the miraculous, but Trinitarianism goes beyond the miraculous to incredulity. Three hundred years after Christ at the Council of Nicea, some of Christianity’s most astute minds were challenging the rising theory. However, when the dust settled and a report was published, it read: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ , the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance (homoousion) with the Father; by whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost.” That is the abrupt end of the description of the Trinity.
“And in the Holy Ghost.” They were comfortable with the Father and Son concept, since those terms were in Scripture, but they didn’t know what to make of the Holy Ghost. Who was He/It? Another Person in the God family? A spiritual force? The action arm of the Godhead? In other words, they were still trying to figure out just where the Holy Spirit fits in the Deity. Fifty-six years later, at Constantinople in AD 381, they hammered out this statement: “And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. In one holy catholic and apostolic Church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
So 350 years after Christ, theologians now proclaimed there was a three-person God. The hypothesis: The Eternal Three were not revealed in the Old Testament but the concept was hinted at in the New. For humanity’s redemption, the First Person of the Trinity assigned the Second Person, His eternal Son, to manifest Himself in the flesh to die for mankind’s sins. Afterward, the Third Person, the Holy Spirit, who was first said to “proceed” from the Father (later determined by Western Catholicism to proceed from the Father and the Son), is sent to reside in the lives of believers.3 What? Who can explain a co-equal, co-eternal God, comprised of a Father and a Son, joined by another Spirit who is also God but proceeds from those two, yet none of them existed before the other? Little wonder that Christians are asked to accept it by faith—likely meaning faith in the institution which developed it—without understanding it.
The concept of an eternal family of Gods is unintelligible.
It was concocted by men, not introduced in Scripture.
The Word has life and power (Hebrews 4:12). If the doctrine had been clearly stated in the Scriptures, it would not be on its last legs. But it was not. Neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament presents a tripartite being as God. God would have surely shared His identity with Moses or Abraham, or perhaps David or Isaiah. If not, He would have revealed the Godhead to John or Peter or Paul. None of them seem to know of a triune deity. As the Christological doctrines began to be debated in the second, third and fourth centuries, apologists and writers of the times tried to put the Godhead in terms not found in Scripture. The Christian faith began to be awash with philosophies and pagan ideas that were prominent in that era.
As Union Theological Seminary professor Dr. Cyril C. Richardson, a confessed Trinitarian with a touch of doubt, observed: “I cannot but think that the doctrine of the Trinity, far from being established, is open to serious criticism, because of both the modern understanding of the Scripture, and inherent confusions in its expression. It is not a doctrine specifically to be found in the New Testament. It is a creation of the fourth-century Church. …My conclusion then, about the doctrine of the Trinity is that it is an artificial construct. It produces confusion rather than clarification.”4
When the question is asked about a scriptural basis for the Trinity, there are two passages that Catholic websites and books like to quote. One is I John 5:7b-8a: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.” The words in italics were not original. They were not even in the Roman Catholic Bible (Latin Vulgate) until the eighth century, and in no Greek document until 1215 and only then as a translation of the Latin Acts of the Lateran Council. It appears in no Greek biblical manuscript until the sixteenth century, and then only in a translation of a Latin version of the Bible.5 Virtually no contemporary translation includes the phrase. Almost all textual critics agree that it was a gloss and not authentic.
The only other Trinitarian passage that is usually cited is Matthew 28:19. However, there is no extant Greek manuscript containing tThe only other passage that is usually cited in support of the doctrine is Matthew 28:19. However, there is no extant Greek manuscript containing the last part of Matthew pre-dating the Nicean Council. Eusebius and some others who quote the verse before that time stopped after “in my name,” as did Luke in 24:47. Mark did not suggest the titles “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” in his Great Commission message (Mark 16:15-18). Although not as conclusive as in the case of I John 5:7, there is substantial evidence that the inclusion of the titles in Matthew 28:19 were not original. It smacks of liturgy, not inspired Scripture. We know that the Catholic monks copying biblical manuscripts attempted at other times to insert the same phrase.6 Even with “the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” in place, we are still instructed to use the name of the Lord, not titles or offices. Neither Father, Son, nor Holy Spirit is a name.
Other verses that are sometimes quoted are referenced only because to Trinitarians they seem to lend credence to their presupposition of a Trinity. Without I John 5:7 and Matthew 28:19 those verses would not likely be introduced as passages supporting the Trinitarian view.7
It was an accommodation, not a revelation.
In the second and third centuries, the wrath of pagan Rome was unrelenting. They demanded that all subjects support the Roman concept of multiple deities. Other religions of the region had featured images of a Trinitarian deity. Christianity was losing one leader after another to martyrdom as they refused to acknowledge the emperor as a god. They lacked the fortification of the full Bible as we know it today. They had single manuscripts, fragments, and portions, but not the full revelation of both the Hebrew Scriptures together with the complete and revelatory writings of the apostles. Generations of Christians living in pagan cultures subsequent to the Apostolic Age struggled with how Jesus could say, “I and my Father are one...He that has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). How could Jesus be both the Father and the Son? So they separated them.
Those statements by Jesus should not be a problem to those familiar with the whole counsel of Scripture. He was both the root and the offspring of David (Revelation 22:16), both the Creator and the creature (Colossians 1:15,16), both the purchaser and the price of redemption (Acts 20:28; Matthew 27:9; I Corinthians 6:20), both the High Priest and the sacrifice (Hebrews 2:17; 9:26), both the Shepherd and the door of the sheepfold (John 10:11), both the Lion and the Lamb (Revelation 5:5; John 1:29), both the first and the last, the beginning and the ending (Revelation 1:8). Isaiah called Jesus both the Father and the Son in the same verse (Isaiah 9:6).
Justin and other apologists, most of whom were steeped in the philosophies of savants like Plato and Philo,8 appealed to Rome with the concept that Christians are not so anti-Rome, not so anti-establishment, not so anti-pagan. They called for a cessation of persecution based on these and similar concepts. The image of a Trinity apparently aided the apologists in making Christianity appear more compatible with pagan polytheism. The “conversion” of the Emperor-to-be Constantine in 312 sealed the deal. Persecution ceased. Christians were eventually given governmental postings. Bishops became a primary part of the establishment. Laws favoring Christians were enacted as the church and state moved toward becoming one. If the theory was not first put forth as an accommodation, it soon became that.
It was forced, not received.
Within fifty years after Christianity was legalized by Rome and “bishops” given positions of authority, the “Christians” were persecuting the pagans to force them into the fold. Laws were enacted under Christian emperors Constantius II (337-361) and later under Theodosius I (381-395) that made certain pagan practices illegal on pain of death. Authorities insisted that the Trinity doctrine, as a fundamental creed of the church, be affirmed. However, dogma forced into the head is seldom embraced by the heart. It becomes a matter of submission, not of faith.
Involuntary compliance creates its own enemies. However, in the matter of religious dogma, the European and Mid-Easterners opted for that approach. The doctrine of the Trinity was the basis for much of the persecution heaped upon the dissidents of Europe for hundreds of years. Those who would not publicly confess it became martyrs—the pyres of Christians being burned at the stake lit the European skies for centuries. Individual religious choice is a relatively late concept. Men who longed for religious liberty fought the seas in boats too small to be safe came to these shores with their families and founded a new nation where that longing could become reality. Although our national forefathers were mostly of European stock, America was founded on the principle of personal liberty, and we are accustomed to it. The ruthless power of forced compliance with religious dogma is unknown to our citizens today. We have known freedom too long.
Some of America’s founding fathers were not Trinitarians. In Europe, Trinitarian images in art were common. Few, if any, appeared in Colonial America. Among the signers of the Declaration of Independence were men from various denominations, including Unitarians. Haym Salomon, a Jew, was an important financier of the Revolution. Although believers in a higher Authority, usually spoken of as God, men like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and Thomas Paine could not be counted on to confess a Trinitarian concept of God. It is said that John Adams, although elevating the Christian faith as an indispensible guarantor of public morality, rejected many of the basic tenets of Christian orthodoxy. Some consider Adams to have been a Unitarian, but that may have been more of a matter of personal belief than of actual church membership. Thomas Jefferson, although a life-long Episcopalian, referred to himself as a “rational Christian” and a “Unitarian.” He was turned off by rituals and doctrines of organized religion. He is quoted as saying in his old age: “I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.” 9
The problem with Islam is that the name itself bears the meaning of forced “submission.” Muslims detest the idea of a family of gods. Would monotheistic Islam have become the world threat that it is today if the Trinitarians had not come to power and thrust that unbiblical theory on virtually all of Christendom? Islam is challenging Trinitarians to either prove their position or confess that Christians, Jews and Muslims all worship the same God. They cannot do the former so many are capitulating to do the latter. For shame. Believers in the Oneness of God are obligated to do neither.
It was inherited, not discovered or determined by Protestants.
The common people were encouraged to trust their spiritual leaders more than their Bibles. Most of the citizens in pre-Renaissance Europe were illiterate. Protestants merely viewed the Trinity as too big of an issue to take on during the Reformation. There were no mass movements leaving the Roman Catholic Church over its teaching of the Trinity. While that is true, there were many individuals and a few smaller groups who were willing to say that the doctrine was not expressed in Scripture. Among them were members of the Anabaptists, the Socinians, and other dissident groups. Antitrinitarians were probably part of every nonconformist aggregation until movements became denominations. Denominations developed creeds for membership that must be viewed as foundational dogma, and virtually all of them embraced the Trinity without serious examination.10 Reformers basically stood on a single issue, and the churches they founded never moved on from that point to fully return to the biblical doctrines and experiences of the apostles.
Although generally accepted, many leading Protestants chafed under the language of the doctrine. Luther himself decried the weird abstraction: “It is indeed true that the name ‘Trinity’ is nowhere to be found in the Holy Scriptures, but has been conceived and invented by man. For this reason it sounds somewhat cold and we had better speak of ‘God’ than of the ‘Trinity.’ This word signifies that there are three persons in God. It is a heavenly mystery which the world cannot understand. …The great universities have invented manifold distinctions, dreams and fictions by means of which they would explain the Holy Trinity, and have made fools of themselves.”11
Also, John Calvin knew that prayers directed toward a Triune God were unscriptural: “I dislike this vulgar prayer, ‘Holy Trinity, one God! Have mercy on us!’ as altogether savoring of barbarism. We repudiate such expressions as being not only insipid, but profane.”sup>12 Yet, the Trinity had become so ingrained in Christian dogma that Calvin, although a Protestant, forced the Christians in Geneva to either believe it or suffer the consequences. When a Spanish doctor named Miguel Serveto (Latinized as Michael Servetus) wrote in opposition to the Trinitarian theory, Calvin had him arrested, and on October 27, 1553 he was burned at the stake for his unwillingness to acknowledge the Trinity by calling Jesus an “eternal Son.” Unless it can be proved by Scripture that Jesus pre-existed as an “eternal Son,” the Trinitarian doctrines crumbles.
Early on, Lutherans and Presbyterians, not long out of the chains of Catholicism themselves, persecuted those under their jurisdiction who would not conform, particularly in embracing the Trinity. The doctrine had become an instrument of humiliation and death, not a fountain of life and truth.
It is the pillar of an institution, not the foundation of the church.
The revelation of the incarnation of God in Christ is the foundation of the church Jesus promised to build (Matthew 16:18). Jesus recognized the Father as the only true God (John 17:3) and subscribed to the non-Trinitarian creed of Mark 12:29. The proclamation of Jesus in Matthew 16:18 was apparently not a reference to Peter alone or to the revelation he had received alone. Both were likely in view. Without this understanding of who Jesus is, the remaining doctrinal foundational stones are not fitted together. The cornerstone of Jesus Christ ties together the doctrines of sin, atonement, salvation and even lifestyle. It gives purpose and meaning to the teachings that undergird all other beliefs. Truth is the mortar that holds all things in place. Jesus said, “I am the truth” (John14:6). Paul acknowledged these facts: “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19-22 NKJV).
This world does not produce men like Jesus Christ. He was unique (John 3:16), unlike all others. He came to reveal the true God: “No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten [unique] Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (John 1:18). “In the bosom of the Father,” where He had always been (John 1:1), would indicate the most intimate connection—a shared essence (John 14:10) and special relationship for which the world has no analogy, no real comparisons or similes that fit. No one but Jesus could say, “I came but I was already here; I am going away but I will never leave you.”
The Trinity doctrine is often stated in terms of “the Son is of the Father alone, not made nor created, but begotten.” What does “of the Father mean” if He was not the Sire? If He was the Sire, then the Son was preceded by the Father. What does “begotten” mean if not synonymous with “of the Father”? Does not “begotten” signify that one was before the other? Is the “Spirit of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:19) distinct from the Holy Spirit? Is the Holy Spirit the “Spirit of Truth” (John 16:13)? Did not Jesus say, “I am the truth”? The Trinity, still a cornerstone of Roman Catholic theology, is a source of confusion, which is not of God (I Corinthians 14:33).
Even set in modern language, the Trinity doctrine is not understood today, merely “accepted” on the basis of tradition and that one billion people (the estimated number of Trinitarian Christians in the world) can’t be wrong. Of course they can be—and are. Numbers do not establish truth.
Trinitarian confusion grows while the doctrine is dying. Efforts to resuscitate it are failing. All of the books and words being poured into the effort will not revive it. Dig its grave. The Bible tells us to “prove all things, hold fast to that which is good” (I Thessalonians 5:21). The Trinity doctrine is not provable; therefore, we conclude that such unbiblical teaching is not “good.”
The Renaissance and the Reformation brought Europe out of the Dark Ages, but it was the people baptized in the Spirit in the twentieth century revival who fully recognized the errors of the Trinity. Along with this recognition came the understanding of the significance of the name of Jesus. Fortified by Scripture and emboldened by the Spirit, God’s people are joining hands with those courageous souls of the first century who personally knew the Jesus who said, “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8).
Amen and amen.
1. An example is Jennifer Anne Herrick, Trinitarian Intelligibility—An Analysis of Contemporary Discussions: An Investigation of Western Academic Trinitarian Theology of the Late Twentieth Century (Universal-Publishers, 2007). Peter Toon’s book, Our Triune God: A Biblical Portrayal of the Trinity is reviewed on Amazon with these comments: “From both within the church and outside her walls the orthodox doctrine of the Holy Trinity, declared in Scripture and passed down in ecumenical creeds and local confessions of faith, is under attack. The emerging absence of a Trinitarian mind-set so prevalent in the church today has enormous implications for the future of the Christian faith. Concerned to counter contemporary attacks on the doctrine of God, Peter Toon here demonstrates the existence and priority of a Trinitarian pattern in Scripture and defends the essential role of the Trinity in Christian belief, faith, and practice.” Attacks from whom? The UPCI and other Oneness groups? Not entirely. This pillar of Roman Catholicism is under attack, or at least serious scrutiny, from clergy and laity from various denominations who see it as unintelligible.
2. Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), p. 13. He continues: “It is fair to say that the Bible does not clearly teach the doctrine of the Trinity. In fact, there is not even one proof text. (p. 89). Noted Trinitarian scholar and author Millard J. Erickson agrees: “This doctrine in many ways presents strange paradoxes...It was the very first doctrine dealt with systematically by the church, yet is still one of the most misunderstood and disputed doctrines. Further, it is not clearly or explicitly taught anywhere in Scripture, yet it is widely regarded as a central doctrine, indispensable to the Christian faith.” God In Three Persons (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 1995), pp. 11,12.
3. The doctrine of the procession of the Holy Spirit from both the Father and the Son played a role in the Great Schism of 1054, when the Eastern branch of Catholicism (Eastern Orthodox Church) officially renounced the Western (Roman Catholic) position of the Holy Spirit proceeding from both. The EOC held that the Spirit proceeded from the Father alone. (Some in the fourth century had taught that the Spirit proceeded from the Son alone.) There is much confusion about this issue and a number of church councils debated the question. The Filioque (phrase meaning “…and the Son”) in the Roman Catholic creeds has remained a sticking point between the two Catholic factions for over a millennium.
4. Cyril C. Richardson, The Doctrine of the Trinity (Nashville: Abingdon Press 1958), pp. 17; 148.
5. Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London/NY: United Bible Society, 1971), p. 715,716.
6. The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 saw a Trinitarian addition by Catholic scribes in the 12th to the 14th centuries: “[Three] late minuscules (manuscripts written in cursive Greek; nos. 157 225 418) append it further with a Trinitarian ascription, ‘for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit forever. Amen.’ The same expansion occurs also at the close of the Lord’s prayer in the liturgy that is traditionally ascribed to St. John Chrysostom (347-407).” Metzger, A Textual Commentary…, pp. 16,17. Actually, the entire doxology beginning with “For thine is the kingdom…” is not considered by Catholics themselves to be original. If they were inserting the Trinitarian formula in liturgical readings in the fourth century, it is not difficult to accept that they could have added that ascription to Matthew 28:19, for which there is no known Greek witness before that time. Many scholars and reference works come down on the side of the three-fold titles of Matthew 28:19 as being added in the Nicene era. Were it to be removed by contemporary scholars who determined its non-existence in the earliest MSS, there would be an outcry: “But we have become accustomed to it. We like it. We are comfortable with it.” It would likely be the same response given to Jerome after he made the Latin Vulgate. Being accustomed to the renderings in the pre-Vulgate Old Latin, folks were uncomfortable with the new terminology. Truth, not tradition, should establish the parameters of our comfort zone.
7. As S. C. Guthrie, Jr. states in Christian Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), pp. 76,77: “The Bible does not teach the doctrine of the Trinity. Neither the word ‘trinity’ itself nor such language as ‘one-in-three,’ 'three-in-one,’ one ‘essence’ (or ‘substance’), and three ‘persons’ is biblical language. The language of the doctrine is the language of the ancient church taken from classical Greek philosophy.” Dr. Millard Erickson explains that there is growing opposition to the Trinity because of “the apparent silence of the Bible on this important subject. This contention notes that there really is no explicit statement of the doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible, particularly since the revelation by textual criticism of the spurious nature of I John 5:7. Other passages have been seen on closer study to be applicable only under the greatest strain.” God In Three Persons (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 1995), p. 12.
8. According to William Robinson, “The Apologists of the second century were more familiar with Platonic cosmology than they were with biblical soteriology, and hence stretched the Christian doctrine to fit a philosophical procrustean mold. They conceived God as above and beyond all essence, ineffable, incommunicable, impassible, exalted beyond any commerce with matter,
time or space. This Platonic God put forth the Word. . .by an act of His will to be His intermediary for creation, revelation and redemption. The doctrine construes the Son as preexistent.” William C. Robinson, Evangelical Quarterly, "Jesus Christ is Jehovah” (Part 2), 5/3/33; p. 275.
9. Some of the information in this paragraph was drawn from http://www.uuftc.org/minister/sermons/2008-sermons/faith-of-our-founding-fathers/, including the last quotation. It should be noted that Apostolic Oneness believers are not the same as Unitarians or Socinians. While we have in common the rejection of the Trinity, other Christological aspects are quite distinct.
10. According to the New International Encyclopedia, published by Harvard University in 1922, p. 477: “At the time of the Reformation the Protestant Church took over the doctrine of the Trinity without serious examination.”
11. Martin Luther, in Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. 3, edited and translated by John Nicholas Lenker, Baker Book House reprint (n.d.) of The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther, 1907 edition, vol. 12, pp. 406-407.
12. Quoted by John Selkirk, Authentic Report of the Public Discussion Between Joseph Barker and William Cook (London: J. Chapman, 1865), p. 562. This book contains a number of other quotations from notables that are not positive for the traditional view of the Trinity.