The Origin of the Doctrine of the Trinity
By William B. Chalfant
“Tell ye, and bring them near; yea, let them take counsel together: who hath declared this from ancient time? who hath told it from that time? have not I the LORD? and there is no God else beside me; a just God and a Saviour; there is none beside me” (Isaiah 45:21).
The doctrine of the trinity supposes that there is a Lord (Jehovah or Yahweh) who is God; there is also a Son, Jesus, who is likewise God; and there is yet another who is also God, the Holy Ghost, whom the proponents of this doctrine call the “third person” of their divine trinity. All three of these divine persons, they say, constitute one God, so that there is only one God, but yet there are three distinct divine persons facing one another.
Webster’s New International Dictionary defines the trinity in this way: “1. The condition of being three; threeness. 2. Theological: the union of three persons or hypostases (the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost) in one Godhead, so that all three are one God as to substance, but three persons or hypostases as to individuality.”
R. V. Sellers, an English Christian leader and a devout trinitarian, was quite frank about the doctrine of the trinity, stating that many sincere Christians “are finding the church’s traditional presentation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, a source of real difficulty and perplexity.”2 Adolph Harnack, the church historian, was prompted to write that the “dogmatic” teaching on the trinity built “a theory of legal fictions with no more foundation in fact than the conscienceless personality of a joint stock company created by lawyers for legal purposes.”3 In other words, the trinity exists only on paper and not in reality.
What is the origin of the trinity? Certainly, it was not taught in the Old Testament, although trinitarian theologians wrest Scripture to find it there.
No Jewish writer of the New Testament ever espoused such a theory. None of the reputed disciples of the apostles (Clement, Ignatius, Hermas, or Polycarp) taught such a doctrine, despite attempts by trinitarian scholars to stretch meager triadic references into a full-blown trinitarian model.
There is some evidence that the idea of a trinity sprang from the ancient Babylonian religion. Trinities abound in the ancient pagan religions.
Numenius of Apamea (fl. AD 175), a pagan Syrian philosopher who had great influence upon the Alexandrian Catholics, boasted that he had gone back to “the fountainhead of Plato, Socrates, and Pythagoras, to the ancient tradition of the Brahmins, Magi, Egyptians, and Jews, and had restored to the schools the forgotten doctrine of Three Gods.”4 Numenius probably was active before AD 175, which would be just about the time that the architects of the trinity were developing their model of the Godhead. Charles Bigg called Numenius a co-founder (along with the Catholic father Clement of Alexandria) of “Neo-Platonism.” Moreover, Numenius was not only a well-read philosopher, but he reportedly knew the Gospels and the Epistles.5
Apamea, in Syria, where Numenius taught, was a center of Neo-Platonism. Bigg noted that the philosopher Amelius taught there also and quoted from the apostle John’s Gospel in support of the philosophical doctrine of the Logos.6 We should not doubt that early architects of the trinity doctrine were familiar with philosophy concerning the Logos and were influenced by it. The idea of the Logos as a different divine person from God the Father was not taken from the Scriptures, but rather from philosophy and ancient pagan religions.
According to Charles Bigg, “Numenius first personified the Arch-Idea (Logos) of Plato and spoke of it as God.”7 Numenius wrote concerning his doctrine of three Gods that the first divine person was “Mind” (nous), simple and changeless, good and wise.8 Being changeless, “Mind” cannot create, and so a second God was derived from Him, called the “Creator” (Demiurge). This Son (“Creator”) is no longer simple like “Mind” (the Father), but is twofold. A part of the Son (“Creator”) is incorporated in the things he made and became the third God, the “World Spirit.”9
This is the type of second-century philosophy that influenced the architects of the trinity doctrine. Obviously, Numenius was not the originator of this kind of thinking. Zeller concluded that Numenius derived his doctrine of the “Son-creator” from the Gnostics, who were active in the second century. 10
A century earlier, a Jewish priest turned philosopher Philo Judaeus (c. 20 Be-AD 50), had already outlined much of the Logos theory in his attempts to harmonize Greek philosophy with the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament).
Henry Malter noted that Philo had anticipated the Alexandrian Catholics by more than a century in developing an elaborate and often fantastic system of allegorization of the Bible, whereby the text could be made to mean anything desired.”11 And truly the flagrant use of allegorization by the architects of the trinity is amazing.
It is the belief of Malter and many other scholars that “Philo’s influence … was an important factor in the construction of the Christian dogma by the Church fathers.”12 There is no doubt that the grafting of the doctrine of the trinity onto Christian theology could not have been accomplished without the philosophy of such men as Philo and Numenius.
Philo had a form of the Logos doctrine ready-made ~or the. trinitarians who were to spring up later. He taught, “All beings between the perfection of God and the imperfect, finite matter have their unity in, and proceed from the divine Logos.”13 It is amazing that a Jewish philosopher was laying the groundwork for the trinity doctrine even as the apostle Paul was evangelizing the Greek and Roman world! Historian Philip Carrington wrote that the apologists “already had the theology of Philo to guide them.”14
One cannot underestimate the power of Philo’s use of allegory to interpret Scriptures in a philosophical manner. This was actually a Gnostic approach of giving hidden or “higher” meanings to Scripture. To allegorize means “to speak figuratively” and to use “symbolic fictional figures” and “generalizations.” It is a departure from the ancient biblical “literalism” and set the Gentile Catholics upon a sea of delusion, which has even bound the modern Protestant literalists of today.
Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 153-220) adopted the allegorical method of Philo. George Gilbert said that to him “the Bible was a book of enigmas, and the one key to it was allegory. . .. Clement’s method of interpretation survived in power until the Reformation.”15 .
Much allegory is still used in biblical interpretation among Catholics and Protestants today. The “literalism” of many staunch Protestants has never seemingly permitted them to see the impossibility of the trinity teaching, which is steeped in allegory.
Many of the apologists of the second century (such as Quadratus, Justin, Athenagoras) were associated With Athens, a great center of Greek philosophy and worldly wisdom. But Alexandria rivaled Athens as a center of philosophy and learning. Alexandria, located in Egypt, was a seaport long held to be the second-greatest city in the
At one time the church at Alexandria must have been apostolic. Tradition says that John Mark, the evangelist and nephew of Barnabas, established a church III Alexandria c. AD 55-61. The first bishop was a convert of Mark’s a shoe cobbler named Anianus. By the time of Mark’s reported death c. AD 68, the believers had built “a considerable church in the suburban district of Baucalis, where cattle grazed by the seashore.”16
Charles Bigg said the church grew in the second century and actually consisted of twelve assemblies. (In other words, it was a small district.) Some of these congregations, moreover, were of “high social standing and intelligence.”17
Then, in some of the congregations, Bigg noted a lowering of “piety and morals” among the members. The ministers actually seemed to encourage this, because they had participated in the process. And Bigg painted a picture of a church in the second century that is not pretty:
[It was) a large and rich community existing in the bosom of a great university town. . . . Their most promising young men attended the lectures of the heathen professors. Some, like Ammonius (Saccas) , relapsed into Hellenism, some drifted into Gnosticism, like Ambrosius, some like Heraclas passed safely through the ordeal, and as Christian priests still wore the pallium, or philosopher’s cloak, the doctor’s gown we may call it of the pagan academy.18
As the church became lukewarm, they sent their young men to be taught by the heathen professors. What a horrible harvest they reaped! How terrible to send young Christian minds into the pagan camps of learning and then to lose them! Surely, this was not the intention, but the end result was that the district of Alexandria lost its apostolic doctrine.
In the second century, Alexandria set up its infamous catechetical school, which would become a trinitarian college infected with Greek philosophy and paganism. Similar schools existed by then at Athens, Antioch, Edessa (modern Urfa, Turkey), and Nisibis.19 We have seen how that Justin set up a school at Rome that taught the new Logos doctrine.
Bigg said that the school at Alexandria taught geometry, physiology, and astronomy in the first year. Then, the instructors taught philosophy and “looked up to the great masterminds of the Hellenic schools with a generous admiration, and infused the same spirit into their disciples.”20
The first presidents of the Alexandrian school were Athenagoras from Athens, Pantaenus, a converted Stoic philosopher, and then Titus Flavius Clemens (Clement of Alexandria), who made the first attempt to build up a system of theology. 21
Clement was greatly influenced by Philo. According to Harnack, he quoted from Philo often and even “plagiarize[d)” him. He equated Clement to the Gnostic leader Valentinus.22 And it is true that Clement spoke much of gnosis in his writings.
The word gnosis can be translated as “science” or “knowledge.” Harnack went so far as to indicate that Origen, Clement’s student, had a system that was opposed by the “ecclesiastical enemies of science,” that is, the Jews and the monarchians. According to Harnack, Origen’s system bore “the unmistakable marks of Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism.”23
Clement himself strongly asserted the merits of philosophy and its continuous necessity in the church. Bigg noted that the Alexandrians agreed that Scripture was inspired, but they had a great Platonic maxim that “nothing is to be believed which is unworthy of God” and held that “their own reason would be the judge of what the Scriptures revealed. “24
These “biblical scholars” had gone beyond their own assemblies! According to Bigg, this system produced two classes of Christians, and these scholars were forced to develop a “doctrine of reserve”: Le., the belief of the “enlightened” philosopher-Christian understands “mysteries” that may not be revealed to the simpler Christian brother.25 We still clearly see this division among the ranks of trinitarian Christians today, in which the “scholars” must correctly explain the trinity, while the simpler trinitarians do not have such a full “revelation.”
Origen (AD 185-254), a contemporary of Sabellius, was said by some to be the greatest trinitarian teacher of the ancient world. He was a powerful enemy of the Oneness message. George Fisher wrote of him: “The decisive blow against Monarchianism was struck by the Alexandrian school through its great representative Origen.”26
Origen may bear some responsibility for the modern textual revision that began twisting the Word of God in the nineteenth century. Harold Bell said that the Vatican Codex (fourth century), upon which Westcott and Hort based their “great” edition, “seems to have been an Alexandrian recension. “27
In his Commentary on Titus, Origen remarked on the attraction that monarchianism might have had for the “simple”: “They do not wish to seem to affirm two gods; they do not wish to deny the divinity of the Savior; then they end by admitting merely two names and one single person.”28
We have mentioned the famous visit of Origen to Rome c. AD 211, where he preached for Hippolytus. His alliance with Hippolytus, a fellow trinitarian, against the modalistic Roman bishops Zephyrinus and Callistus apparently caused him problems with the later Roman trinitarian bishop Pontian (AD 230-35), who was a trinitarian rival of Hippolytus, because a Roman council condemned Origen in AD 231. After both Hippolytus and Pontian were dead, Origen attempted to mend fences with the new Roman bishop, Fabian (AD 236-50).29
In his Commentary on John, Origen stated, “We believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three essences, or substances. “30
Jean Danielou believed that Origen was the originator of the doctrine of the “eternal generation of the Son” and that this was perhaps his “main contribution” to trinitarian theology. He said that Origen was “the first writer in whose works modalism is entirely excluded.”31 The teaching of the eternal generation of the Son does not appear in the Scriptures, but one can already see an intimation of this teaching in Irenaeus in the second century.
Danielou stated that Origen taught against modalism as follows: “One basic affirmation [of Origen’s) against modalism [was) namely that the Word [Logos) has His own substantial reality …. The Son has His own ousia, hypostasis, and hypokeimenon [substantial reality). This is in direct opposition to modalism.”32 In this way, Origen attempted to establish Christ as a distinct divine person from God the Father. Modalism did not hold that Christ was a different divine person but rather that Christ is God Almighty Himself.
Rufus M. Jones said that Origen was a fellow student with Plotinus, the philosopher, of the pagan teacher Ammonius Saccas and that Origen “made a thorough study of Plato and Numenius, and was in all his thinking profoundly influenced by the contemporary Neo-Platonic movement.”33 As Jones also noted, Origen held that Christ is simply theos, while God the Father is ho theos (“the God”). This was from his interpretation of John 1:1. The same argument appears today in the interpretation of some groups who teach that Christ is merely “a god” (a lesser deity). This idea was from Philo. It indicates the idea of subordination found in the ancient trinity doc-
In his well-known apology Against Celsus, Origen called the Logos (that is, Christ) “a second God” in three places.34 He also made an obvious reference to monarchians as those “who reject the existence of two persons [hypostases], the Father and the Son.”35 It is obvious t~at the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as a full-blown, equal third person was not yet developed, although the threeness of God had been asserted by Tertullian.
The influence of Origen on the development of the doctrine of the trinity cannot be denied. Bigg said of Origen and of his teacher, Clement of Alexandria: “It was [Origen], and his predecessor [Clement of Alexandria], more than any others, who saved the church . . . from Noetianism.”36 We cannot say, however, that Origen and Clement “saved the church” from anything, unless we were to say that they “saved” many Christians of that day from considering the truth of God’s oneness. Yet we know from the statements of Origen and others that they were locked in a doctrinal struggle with many champions of Oneness. Adolph Harnack noted that by the beginning of the fourth century the “theology of the Apologists had triumphed and all thinkers stood under the influence of Origen.”37
Trinitarianism began to grow in the Roman Empire, and its apologists expressed their doctrine in a way that appealed to the pagan mind. Harnack remarked on the serious consequence of the rejection of modalism and the embracing of a Christianized philosophy: “The rejection of modalism and the recognition of Christ as the Logos forced upon the West the necessity of rising from faith to a philosophical and, in fact, a distinctively Neo-Platonic dogmatic.”38
The doctrine of the impassibility (“inability to suffer”) of God the Father had a tremendous impact upon the development of trinitarian teaching. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-22 BC) had taught: “The Deity stands in lonely self-contemplation outside the world. . . . His intellect [nous) is the only thing through which He stands in immediate contact with it.”39 And Plato (428-328 BC) had taught that gods, by definition, “are exalted above pleasure and pain, and are untouched of all evils.”40
And then we come to Philo, who taught that God the Father was, in this manner of impassibility, above the world, and that there was, in addition, an impersonal aspect of God known as Logos, archangel, demiurge, or creator. Here we see some of the components of the doctrine of the trinity.
The trinitarian Christian philosophers conceived of a Father who was impassible (incapable of suffering or feeling pain), and then they established a second divine person, the Logos, who became passible (capable of suffering and feeling pain). There was One who could not suffer, and He sent another divine person who could suffer. But this doctrine was never taught by the apostles. And even later, after the death of the apostles, we read in Ignatius, as we have mentioned, of one God who was “impassible, yet for us subjected to suffering. “41
Impassibility is involved in the foundation of the doctrine of subordinationism, which was attached to trinitarianism in the beginning. It is interesting to note that this doctrine is still indirectly advocated by trinitarians today. Brumback, in his book God in Three Persons, said of the Son, whom he considered to have made the Old Testament appearances of God, “He was the member of the Godhead who was selected to appear; undoubtedly, in anticipation of His incarnation.”42 Christ, in their view, is a different divine person, selected to suffer. Why? Because He is the Son!
A few trinitarians, such as Adam Clarke (d. 1832), have recognized the nonbiblical nature of “the eternal Son” doctrine and have rejected it. 43
A modern trinitarian, Robert M. Bowman Jr., acknowledged the role of the ancient Catholic fathers in developing the doctrine of the trinity, but he has selectively appealed to their “orthodoxy” in order to suit his own purposes. For example, he stated, “Origen was in fact labeled a heretic for some of his views (though not for his views on the Trinity).”44 So, then, he has appealed to a “heretic” for vindication.
E. Calvin Beisner, in his God in Three Persons upheld the Catholic fathers Tertullian and Hippolytus, calling them “great defenders of trinitarian faith,” despite the fact that Tertullian wrote his great defense of the trinity while a member of the heretical Montanists, and Hippolytus was a rebel pastor who withdrew from the Roman district and fought against the legally elected Christian bishop of Rome, as did Tertullian. Beisner also made a lengthy apology for Origen, especially for his teaching on the trinity, even though Origen was condemned by the Catholic Church as a heretic. 45
David Bernard noted, “Origen taught a number of strange doctrines derived from speculation and Greek philosophy, such as the preexistence of souls, universalism, the ultimate salvation of Satan, and eternal creation.”46
Apparently, it does not mean much to Bowman and Beisner what these Catholic fathers believed overall; they are qualified to be arbiters of orthodoxy if they endorsed the trinity doctrine in some way or other! And let there be no mistake about the importance of the Catholic fathers in the scheme of modern trinitarians. As Bernard noted, “[Jaroslav] Pelikan identified [Origen] as the primary developer of the trinitarian Logos/Son doctrine, with Tertullian and Novatian being next in importance.”47
And what of Novatian? Novatian (AD 210-80), possibly a Phrygian by birth, was a trinitarian presbyter in Rome who rebelled against the election of the trinitarian Cornelius as bishop of Rome after Bishop Fabian died in AD 250. He reportedly wrote On the Trinity c. AD 256 while he was an “antipope” in Rome (AD 251-58). H. J. Carpenter said that Novatian’s treatise On the Trinity is “far more in line with the teaching of Tertullian and Hippolytus than with the utterances of contemporary Roman bishops.”48 His work was primarily an effort to refute dynamic and modalistic monarchians (who were probably in Rome).
Novatian is merely another example, as Justin, Tertullian, and Hippolytus before him, of “Catholic fathers” who are considered as “architects” of the trinity doctrine and yet who were in their lifetimes either on the periphery of the church or in open rebellion against the leadership of the church. This is a sad commentary on the historical credentials of the trinitarian roots. Would this doctrine have survived in church history if it had not been the selected “orthodoxy” of the Roman imperial state church?
Gregory Boyd, in his polemic against Oneness Pentecostalism, fell into the same trap of appealing to such questionable credentials. He wrote, “One finds in such figures as Origen, Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus, an unqualified trinitarianism that structured everything about their faith.”49
We have already seen that Origen was condemned as a bona fide “heretic,” and Tertullian designed his trinitarianism as a heretical Montanist. Irenaeus clashed with the
Roman bishops in defense of Montanism, and Hippolytus was a rebel pastor, fighting against the orthodox modalism of the duly elected Christian bishop of Rome! We simply cannot accept such men as representatives of the true historical teaching of the apostolic church. What is ironic is that writers today such as Gregory Boyd, E. Calvin Beisner, and others like them, would be branded as “heretics” by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus, because these modern heralds of “orthodoxy” do not, for example, believe in water baptism for the remission of sins.
Many churches in the metropolitan districts of the Roman Empire in the third century that had embraced the trinitarian Logos doctrine actually altered their creeds to proclaim the “invisibility” and “impassibility” of the Father as a distinct person from the Son.50
The doctrine of the trinity was refined in the third century, but it was never completely divorced from its pagan and philosophical connections.
Augustine (AD 354-430), the theologian whose shadow would fall across the Middle Ages, was born at Thagaste in Numidia (modern Algeria). He was originally a pagan, although his mother was a devout Catholic. He was converted through the efforts of Ambrose of Milan in AD 386 and became the Catholic bishop of Hippo (modern Bone, Algeria).
George F. Thomas said that Neo- Platonism had a profound effect on Augustine.51 Augustine himself admitted that he had read in the books of the Platonists that the Logos was God, and Thomas noted that “doubtless [Augustine) is referring to the divine Mind (nous) of Plotinus.”52 Plotinus utilized the Platonic triad, which “consists of the One, Intellect (nous), and Soul.”53
Martin Larson has written that ‘1\Augustine found his ultimate demonstration of the Trinity in pagan philosophy.”54 It would be difficult to name a Catholic father who did not pattern his model of the Godhead, in some way, after the pagan model! And Larson attributed Platonic influences also to Augustine’s theology on the Godhead: “[Augustine), like Origen … based his reasoning on the metaphysics of Plato, who declared that man is a trichotomy consisting of body, mind, and soul. Using this as a point of departure, Augustine found it a reflection of the trinal unity of the godhead.”55 But although a human being consists of body, soul, and spirit (I Thessalonians 5:23), we should point out that he is just one individual or one person.
Henry Chadwick wrote of Augustine, “The Greek thinker whose work most deeply entered [Augustine’s) bloodstream was Plato.”56 But then Chadwick added, “The form of Platonic philosophy which eventually captured his mind was … Neoplatonism.”57 And when we think of “Neo-Platonism,” we think of such philosophers as Plotinus (AD 205-70) and Porphyry of Tyre (AD 250-305). We have also mentioned Numenius and Clement.
Levi Paine wrote that Augustine’s On the Trinity “contains some of the wildest specimens of theological metaphysics that can be found anywhere in the whole range of historical theology.”58 Max Fisher wrote that Augustine, in his City of God, called Plato a “demigod,” and “to the end of his days he remained a Platonist.”59
Augustine reportedly accepted monarchian Christianity as “orthodox” until he was converted to Catholicism.60 Some even thought that he might have dallied with Photinism before he became a Catholic, but this does not seem likely.
Trinitarian dogma came to prominence in Augustine. For example, he wrote, “The Father is omnipotent, the Son is omnipotent, and the Holy Spirit is omnipotent, and yet there are not three omnipotents, but one omnipotent.”61
By the time of Augustine, the Middle Ages loomed into view. With the help of the Roman Empire, Catholic teaching, including trinitarianism, stood triumphant on the known world scene at that time.
No one doubts the antiquity of the trinity doctrine. This teaching began in the ancient pagan world and has taken millennia to develop, even with its Christian trappings.
Franz Cumont stated that the Neo-Platonic school was “heavily indebted” to the Chaldeans (or Babylonians) for their ideas. Triads (or trinities) existed throughout the ancient world. 52 The concept of the trinity did not originate in the Bible. The trinitarian concept of “three divine persons” was present in various triads of the ancient pantheons of Babylon, Egypt, India, and Greece. Using the idea of a messenger god, or a “logos,” it was no great feat for theologians to attach the basic concepts of a trinity to the Christian faith.
This article “The Origin Of The Doctrine Of The Trinity” by William B. Chalfant is excerpted from his book Ancient Champions of Oneness, 2001.