The Origin of the Trinity
By William B. Chalfant
William Chalfant is pastor of Truth Tabernacle in Leavenworth, Kansas, Sunday School Director of the Kansas District, and editor of the district paper. He is the author of one book. He attended the University of Maryland and received his Bachelor of Science degree magna cum laude from the University of Kansas. He has also earned the Master of Theology degree from the International Bible Institute and Seminary.
THE ORIGIN OF THE TRINITY
I. Trinity Origins
This paper will propose to examine the philosophical and pagan origins of the Trinity and its early development. Pagan pantheons of the various ethnic gods will be compared, and triads in these pantheons will be examined for specific Trinitarian-qualities. The antiquity of the Babylonian pantheon and its subsequent influence upon the various pantheons is pointed out.
The idea of the Greek “Logos,” a secondary, derived messenger god, is seen in the ancient pantheons of the nations with a clear differentiation observed between the pagan-philosophical use of the term “logos,” and the Hebrew understanding of the term in their writings up to the time of Philo.
The Gnostic influence of the Greek and Neoplatonic philosophers upon the architects of the Christian Trinity is emphasized, especially the critical role of the Jewish philosopher-priest, Philo of Alexandria, in the development of the Logos doctrine, which is a keystone doctrine of Trinitarian theology.
The Catholic fathers of the Trinity are identified, and comments will be made upon the comparative, developmental Trinitarian theology among them.
Theological concepts developed by early Trinitarians will be noted. One such example is subordinationism, a fatal flaw of Trinitarian theology, which forever subordinates Jesus Christ to the status of a secondary, derived God.
The antiquity of the Trinity is not denied. On the contrary, the Trinity doctrine has taken many millennia to develop, and is yet in the process of change.
Our study will show that the Trinity is of pagan, philosophical ancestry, and was engrafted onto, and accommodated to, Christian theology.
Many scholars in comparative religion and mythology have found common relationships and attributes among the various pantheons. Alexander Hislop, in his Two Babylons, seems to trace the various mythologies back to a common heritage. Hislop pointed out the antiquity of the theological concept of the Trinity by giving examples of pagan trinities in Siberia, Japan, and India, and he noted that the recognition of a Trinity was “universal in all the ancient nations of the world.” He went so far as to say that “the supreme divinity in almost all heathen nations was triune.”
Mesopotamia seems to have been the breeding ground for the ubiquitous triads found in the ancient pantheons. India is not evidently the home of the triadic pattern in pantheons. Veronica lons seems to believe that the pre-Aryan deities were actually transplanted into India from Mesopotamia. The idea of a divine triad of gods came into lndia with Mesopotamian migrants or invaders. Oons thinks that the pre-Aryan god Varuna, considered to be the “universal monarch, sustainer of creation, and guardian of the cosmic law, originally came from Mesopotamia. One of the earliest noted triads consisted of Varuna, Mitra, a fertility god, and Aryaman, god of the heavens. When the Aryans invaded India, they merely substituted their pantheon, and perpetuated the divine triad. A noted Aryan triad was: Vayu, god of the wind, Agni, god of fire and messenger god, and Surya, god of the sun.
A later member of the Indian triad was Indra, storm god, who carried thunderbolts. Vishnu, a “savior” god, intermediary between gods and men, was also, at one time, raised to the status of being a member of a triad.
The history of divine triads is derived exclusively from the pagan pantheons rather than from the Old Testament.
Arhtur Wainwright can find no doctrine remotely resembling the doctrine of the Trinity taught in Judaism until we come to the time of Philo in the first century A.D. Philo, of course was heavily influenced by Green pagan thought.
The idea of a plural god was far from the Hebrew mind. The noncanonical book of Jubilees, written in the second half of the second century B.C., alters the plural verb of Genesis 1:26 by stating, in conformity with Genesis 1:27, “And after all this he created man, a man and a woman, created he them” (Jubilee 2:14). Both the Palestinian Targum and the Jerusalem Targum maintain that God was addressing angels in Genesis 3:22
and in Genesis 11:7. The Jews, therefore, from ancient times refute the
presence of a Trinity in Genesis and in Judaism unpolluted by paganism.
Nevertheless, the pagan idea of a triad of deities is very old. Sumerians, according to Morris Jastrow, paid homage to a triad of El-lil, “god or lord of the storm,” Ea, water deity of Eridu, on the Persian gulf, and Anu, sun god of Ur-uk.7 El-lil, sometimes known as En-lil, was called the “father of Sumer,” “chief of the gods,” “creator and sustainer of life.” The universe was apparently divided up among these three “pre-eminent” deities, with El-lil in charge of earth, Anu of heaven, and Ea of water.
Later, these deities supposedly entrusted the practical direction of the earth to the patron deity of Babylon, Marduk, the firstborn of Ea. Marduk later became known as Bel (Baal), or “lord.” When portrayed in sculpture or frieze, Marduk was always supported by the dragon, the symbol of his power.
It is interesting that Ashur, the god of the Assyrian capital, challenged the patron deity of Babylon, Marduk. Ashur was basically a sun god, and his consort or wife, as Ishtar, the great mother goddess of Nineveh, a city founded by Ninus or Nimrod.
Ishtar, Ashtoreth to the Phoenicians and Astarte to the Greeks, was often portrayed riding a lion. She was called the daughter of the moon, and identified in astrology as the Roman Venus. She was also known as Nana, or Madonna (Lady). Jastrow tells us that the Mother Goddess was quite common throughout the Middle East. She was brought from Asia Minor to Rome with the hope that her statue might save the Roman state from disaster at the hands of the Carthaginians.
Ishtar has a bloody history as a goddess. She was reputedly the murderess of her consort Tammuz, variously known as Bel, Adonis, the Egyptian Osiris, the Greek Bacchus, or simply, Nimrod. Semiramis, later is said to have brought forth an illegitimate son, which she claimed was Nimrod resurrected. He was called El-Bar, or “God the Son,” the “Branch of Cush.” Thus was formulated one of the ancient family triadic patterns of “father, mother, son.”
The early triadic pattern is noted in connection with the construction of the Tower of Babel. Diodorus Siculus, in his Bibliotheca, relates that in the topmost completed story of the tower was placed the images of three gods.
Cumont tells us that triads were dear to the Chaldeans. The Babylonian triad became the Syrian triad of Hada, Atargatis, and Simios, and in Rome, Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury. Not only did the triadic pattern of deity spread throughout the world, but Cumont remarks on the widespread influence of the Babylonian priesthood, and their continued “intellectual supremacy,” even after Babylon had fallen politically. He writes that this religious system affected “all surrounding regions.”
The thoughtful trinitarian may consider that there is a vast difference between these pagan tritheistic triads and the Christian Trinity. Some pagan, triadic concepts are, however, surprisingly familiar. In Asiatic Mythology, we read, for example:
The conception most closely linked with Vedism and Brahmanism is that of the Hindu Trinity, the Trimurti. “The Absolute manifests himself in three persons, Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer.” The syllable we write as om, but which is in reality made up of three words, a, u, D, is the symbol of this trinity.
And the Egyptian triad of the sun god was one god expressed in three persons: Ra, the noonday sun, Tum the evening sun, and Khepera, the dawning sun. The sun god reportedly said, “Lo! I am Khepera at dawn, Ra at high noon, and Tum at eventide.” He was one god in three distinct persons.
Hesiod, in his study of the origin and descent of the gods, has a triad of Gaia (earth), Tartaros (depth), and Eros (love), who come out of Chaos, the formless void, the bottomless abyss, prior to creation, This Greek counterpart of an older Babylonian triad becomes interesting when one realizes that “chaos” is a possible variant of Cush, the father of Nimrod. Here, Hesiod seems to speak of one essence, and three distinct hypostases (beings). The seeds of trinitarianism were sown in pagan triadism.
II. Graeco-Judaeo Syncretism: Trinitarian Development
The ancient Greeks were seemingly very impressed by the wisdom of the Babylonians. As Franz Cumont has said, “Philosophy claimed more and more to derive its inspiration from the fabulous wisdom of Chaldea and Egypt.” “The entire Neo-Plantonic school,” says Cumont, “is heavily indebted to the Chaldeans.” It was the Neoplatonic school, of course, which influenced the Catholic fathers, Justin, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen.
Porphyry indicated that Neoplatonists had admitted Babylonian and Persian demonology into their philosophical system. Numenius (c. 175 A.D.), philosopher of Apamea, Syria, a man who greatly influenced the Catholic fathers of Alexandria, himself showed a marked interest in Indian, Persian, Egyptian, and Jewish thought and practice.
Plato was also acquainted with Babylonian wisdom. He was widely travelled, having been to Persia, India, Egypt, Cyrene, Phoenica, Babylonia, and Judaea. In his travels, Woodbridge notes, Plato learned, “The teachings of Zoroaster, the secrets of the Magi, the laws of Moses, and the mysteries of Egypt.”
Max Fisher wrote, “Plato invokes a principle midway between mind and the physical universe, the demiurge, to create and fashion the world. . .a divine craftsman.” Plato considered his version of God the Father as a Being, who was beyond discovery, and he had a concept of an intermediary god, a secondary, “messenger” god. The primary god remained impassible and unknowable. The doctrine of impassibilty played an important role in the development of the Trinity. This platonic teaching of impassibilty was used to combat the Monarchians in the second century.
But was the idea of a demiurge, or a secondary, messenger Logos original with Plato? The Egyptians had long had a religious concept of a Logos, which was possibly derived from Babylonia. An inscription found on an Egyptian lamp invokes Thoth (Tammu@, the messenger god:
Father of Light, 0 Logos that orderest day and night, come show thyself to me. 0 god of gods, in thy apeform enter.
Showerman says that the ancient writer, Harpocration, associated the phrase “mysterious Logos” to the god Attis (who would equate to Tammuz or Thoth). He also accords the Greek messenger god Hermes this title. Dunlap speaks of a Chaldean Logos.
The idea of a personified, secondary Logos-god, a key element in the Trinity doctrine, is pre-Christian and pagan. The Greek philosophers, from which the Catholic fathers obtained the skeletal framework of the doctrine, apparently appropriated the idea and the term from the oriental religions.
Ishtar was identified as the Logos of the god El-lil. She was said to have exclaimed, “Of the lord (El-lil), his Word (Logos) am I.”
Dresser holds the Logos concept as being a “means of contact between Greek thought and Christian teaching, the Logos also being the connecting link between many forms of religion.” The Logos, then, can be seen as a bridge for introducing the pagan concept of a triadic deity, a subtle polytheism, into monotheistic Christianity.
It is possible that the apostle John, in penning John 1:1, was responding to those who were identifying Christ with the pagan Logos, as he specifically identifies the Logos with God the Father Himself, thus forever rendering impossible the concept of Christ as a separate individual from the Father.
As Granville Henry has observed:
Did John intend to introduce Greek philosophical, scientific or religious interpretations for the person of Christ? A broad consensus of contemporary New Testament scholars maintains that the logos Christology of John must be understood in its peculiarly Hebrew context. To deviate from this context and emphasize Greek meanings is to make a major error in interpretation.
The Greek concept of a personal, separate, divine Logos, distinct from God, or a “second God,” was unknown to the apostles and the disciples of Christ in their exegesis of Scripture. They remained Jewish in their attachment to a solitary, divine, individual Being, who was God. They recognized that sole divinity in Jesus Christ.
Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, for example, was a man who had reputedly sat at the feet of the apostles. He never used the pagan concept of the Logos in reference to Christ. As Corwin writes,
The fact that for Ignatius the connotations of the term Logos are those which contrast it with speech, shows he is not using it in a philosophical sense.
The deity of the Platonists, however, was a triad, or a trinity of hypostases (beings). The first divine person was called to Agathon, “the supreme Good”; the second divine person was called the Logos, “mind,” and the third person was called pscyhe, or “soul.” The second hypostasis, the Logos, was said to have been generated from the first, and was considered eternal, or without beginning. Later, the Neoplatonist Plotinus was to extend eternal generation to the third
divine person of the Platonic Trinity, the “world soul,” or psyche.
It is doubtful that the Greek philosophers at that time would have attributed personal subsistence to this triad of hypostases, but the groundwork had been laid for the Catholic fathers to do so after the initial efforts at harmonization had been made.
Philo Judaeus (20 B.C.-50 A.D.) of Alexandria, was the man who attempted to fuse the strict monotheistic theology of the Hebrew religion with the transcendental theology and philosophy of the Platonists. As Lamson has written:
The authors of the Septuagint version and the Platonists employed the same term (logos) to express totally different views: the former intending by it simply a mode of action in the Oeity; the latter, a real being, (the Deity’s) agent and minister in executing his will. Philo was the first, we believe, who attributed to the Logos a permanent subsistence.
Philo, of course, was to have a profound influence upon the Catholic fathers, and upon the development of the Christian Trinity.
Through the use of allegorical interpretation, which had long been known to the students of Homer, and was systematized by the Stoics, Philo began the effort to combine the absolute monotheism he knew as a Jew with the transcendentalist theology of Platonism. He was attempting a synthesis between the Bible and pagan philosophy.
IPhilo described the pagan Logos as a Jewish “archangel.” To him, the Logos was the “idea of ideas, the firstbegotten Son of the uncreated Father, and the Second God.” The cosmos, he wrote, is held together by the power of the Logos. The Supreme God is too remote and impassible to have direct contact with this world, and so it is the Logos who appears to man (e.g., as in the burning bush to Moses). Philo is inspired to
The Absolute Being, the Father, who had begotten all things, gave an
especial grace to the Archangel and First-born Logos (Word), that standing between, He might sever thecreature from the Creator. The same is ever the Intercessor for the dying mortal before the immortal God, and the Ambassador and the Ruler to the subject. He is neither without beginning of days, as God is, nor is He begotten, as we are, but is something between these extremes, being connected with both.
Philo’s conception of the Logos, with some modification, is very similar to later trinitarian teaching on the Christian Logos.
Charles Semisch has stated, “The early Fathers only poured the contents of the Scriptures into a Philonian vessel: they viewed the biblical passages through a Philonian medium.”
Malter believes that Philo wanted to prove that Judaism and Hellenism actually taught the same divine truth in just a different way.
If we accept the thesis that Philo had an important role in the origin of Christian Trinitarian theology, then it might also be useful to consider his contribution to Christian Gnosticism. Carrington felt he was a Gnostic, and wrote:
[He was] the first and only Jewish philosopher of antiquity. To him Plato was only Moses talking Greek. But in spite of his Judaism and Platonism, he shows only too many traces of that Gnostic error which is so fatal to sound thinking.
Elaine Pagels, in her excellent study of the Gnostic gospels, has stated that Wilhelm Bousset claims to have traced Gnosticism back to ancient Babylonian and Persian sources. The Gnostic thread weaves throughout the history of Trinitarian theology. Martin Larson said, “The Gnostic heresy had its roots in the concept that Christ had existed as a separate power since the creation of the world.
Adam noted, “The distinction which Plato. . .introduced into the being of the Godhead prepared the way for the theology of Philo.” Moreover, he says, “In [Plato’s] conception of the divine nature as a differentiated unity, we may perceive with Baur, a certain resemblance to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.”
Philo just followed Plato in Timaeus when he called the Logos the “image of God” and the “second God.” Adam writes, “The Timaeus did more than any other literary masterpiece to facilitate and promote the fusion of Hellenism and Hebraism out of which so much of Christian theology has sprung.”
Although the idea of a pre-existing demiurge had found little favor among the Greek schools of philosophy before the Christian era, Grote says, “It was greatly welcomed among the Hellenizing Jews at Alexandria, from Aristobulus (c. 150 B.C.) down to Philo.” The idea of a Logos, or demiurge, formed a “suitable point of conjunction” between Hellenic and Judaic speculation, and, says Adam:
The Platonic Timaeus became the medium of transition, from the polytheistic theology which served as philosophy among the early ages of Greece, to the omnipotent Monotheism to which philosophy became subordinated after the Christian era.
Philo’s theory of the Logos is not Christian, but rather it is pagan. Therefore, it seems only logical to conclude that the Catholic fathers have borrowed pagan theories to formulate the Trinity doctrine. One of the clearest identifying factors of Philo’s influence upon the Catholic fathers is his “two-fold stage theory” of the Logos. In this developmental theory of the Trinity, the Logos was “born” or generated
before the creation, which is the first stage. Wolfson declares that from Justin Martyr on, with only a few exceptions, the Catholic fathers, in discussing the preexistent Christ, show “unmistakable evidence of the influence of the Philonic Logos,” and he notes:
All of these Fathers seemed to have identified the Johannine Logos with the Philonic Logos, [and] they also seemed to have known of Philo’s twofold stage theory of the pre-existent Logos, and they seem to have consciously transferred this twofold stage theory from the Platonic Logos to the Johannine Logos.
H. A. Kennedy wrote, “It can scarcely be denied that [Philo’s] particular differentiation of the Logos from the Supreme God had an exceptional influence on the subsequent Christology of the Church.” There are those who will attempt to deny this historically established truth; however, most would admit it with the disclaimer that the Catholic fathers used the philosophy to merely confirm the scripturality of the Trinity doctrine. The contents and the antecedent construction of the doctrine obviate such a view.
As Chadwick said, “The history of Christian philosophy begins not with a Christian, but with a Jew.” Another Jew, Paul, had warned Christians about philosophy, vain deceit, traditions of men, and the rudiments of the world (Colossians 2:8).
III. Architects of the Christianized Trinity
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-213 A.D.), head of one of the early Christian schools heavily influenced by philosophy and Gnosticism, admitted that he was opposed by those who still considered philosophy evil. He, however, made light of their opposition, and said that they were timid and ignorant. He wrote of the “so-called orthodoxy who, like beasts which work from fear, do good works without knowing what they are doing.” Clement, however, knew what he was doing. He had a special gnosis that the ignorant orthodox did not possess.
Ueberweg says, “Gnosticism was the first comprehensive attempt to construct a philosophy of Christianity.” The more flagrant Gnostics, such as Cerdo, Cerinthus, Saturninus, and even Marcion, had been expelled from the church. They, however, were only the “tip of the iceberg.” They left a remnant in the churches, who obviously began developing some philosophical system of Christianity that would compete, so they thought, in the Gentile world.
Paul himself was troubled with Gnostics, and spoke against those who clung to “falsely-named knowledge” (I Timothy 6:20). Simon Magus, who clashed with Peter and Philip (Acts 8), was said to have been the teacher of the Gnostic Pdenander. Menander, in turn, was the masterof the famous Gnostics, Saturninus and Gasilides. Gnosticism, after Judaism, had the dubious honor of being the earliest heresy in Christianity. Gnosticism is the probably breeding ground of Trinitarian theology.
Clement of Alexandria is certainly one of the Catholic fathers of the Trinity, and Bell has written of him, “[he was] strongly influenced by Gnosticism. . .both in him and in his successor [Origen], the influence of Philo was also to be seen.”
In Stromateis (I. vi. 28), Clement wrote, “Philosophy. . .was a schoolmaster to bring Hellenism to Christ, as the Law was for the Hebrews.” Merivale said of the Catechetical School of Alexandria, where Clement taught, “It opened its arms to the teachers of Gnosticism.” And Frederick J. F. Jackson is even more emphatic: “The Christians took over the Bible, the method, and the philosophy of Alexandria.” E. G. Weltin called Clement a “Christian Platonist and Gnostic.” Like Philo, Clement taught that the Logos was an Angel. In the Paedagogus, Clement wrote, “the Logos has appeared, and fear is turned to love, and that mystic angel is born – Jesus” (I.7) In Paedagogus (I.7) he shows his belief in the Platonic hidden, remote, impassible God when he says, “God is one, and beyond the one, and above the Monad itself.”
Moses Stuart said that Clement “so distinguished between the substance of the Father and of the Son as to make the latter inferior.” Photius wrote that Clement, in his now lost work Hypotyposes, held to the argument of the Son as a creature, and asserted the doctrine of the transmigration of souls. Alexandria may well be the site where the Trinity doctrine was transplanted into Christianity- However, there is an earlier trinitarian writer, Quadratus of Athens, who may have written Logos theology as early as c. 125 A.D.13 Quadratus, if he was indeed the author of the Epistle to Diognetus, used the Logos doctrine and eulogized gnosis.
Justin Martyr, reportedly converted to Catholicism, probably a small, minority group at that time, in c. 133 A.D., never discarded his pallium, philosopher’s cloak. Justin taught during the period of an outburst of Gnosticism (the heyday of Valintinus, Basilides, Cerdon, and Marcion). He desired to understand the Jewish Messiah in the light of Greek philosophy, and he wrote:
At the beginning, before all creatures, God begat of Himself a certain rational power, which, by the Holy Spirit, is also called the Glory of the Lordnow Son, now Wisdom, now Angel, now God, now Lord, and Logos.
Justin did not teach the “eternal generation” of the Logos, as one of his disciples, Irenaeus, was to do, but rather he taught that the Logos, or reason of God, was originally a divine, eternal attribute of God,
which was, before the creation, voluntarily “begotten,” or emitted from the Father, and was converted into a real, separate person. Thus, the Son became a derived Being. Derivation implies inferiority, and as Lamson says, “a derived God cannot be a self-existent God.”
This subordination of Jesus Christ has been a hallmark of trinitarian doctrine down through the centuries. Although the Athanasians claimed to have corrected this at Nicea, there are those today who still argue that Jesus cannot be God the Father due to His inferiority.
When Justin speaks of the Son being begotten before the creation, he is merely using the twofold stage theory of Philo’s pre-existent Logos. This is a key building block in the doctrine of the Trinity. The Scriptures, however, speak only of a definite, temporal begetting of Christ in the womb of the virgin Mary (Galatians 4:4, and in the Gospels). Other than in the mind of the Father before the creation, there is no only-begotten Son until He is conceived in the womb of the virgin and born at Bethlehem; this would be the difference between the scriptural examination of the subject and the philosophical tenet.
In following Philo and the Platonists, however, Justin had to look for scriptural confirmation of the pre-existence of another divine demiurge or personal, separate Logos, to show the first stage. He felt he had
found this in Proverbs 8:22. The Catholic Confraternity-Douay Version of this passage reads: “The Lord begot me, the first-born of his ways, the forerunner of his prodigies of long ago.” However, the KJV reads, “The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old.” The passage, of course, is not speaking of a separate, divine person, but rather is referring to an attribute of God, His wisdom. Justin has taken the allegorical liberty of personifying “wisdom.” Moreover, Christ is called by Paul, “the wisdom of God” (I Corinthians 1:24). But we cannot thereby personify or make gods out of virtues or powers. Paul was not agreeing with a philosophical interpretation of Proverbs 8:22, but rather he was merely asserting that God the Father is operating modally through Christ and that He has shown His divine wisdom through the marvelous incarnation for our salvation.
Tatian, Justin’s disciple, taught the same Philonic theory, as did Athenagoras, and Theophilus, his contemporaries. Tertullian also held to Philo’s twofold stage theory, and taught the birth of the pre-existent Logos, or Son, as he preferred. He said that the Father could not be called “father” before the generation of the Logos (Against Praxeas 5, 6).
In the third century, the implications of having one member of the Trinity with a beginning became generally clear. Novatian began to retreat from the twofold stage theory, and wrote:
But He who is before all time must be said to have been always in the Father; for no time can be assigned to Him who is before all time. And He is always in the Father, unless the Father be not always Father, only that the Father precedes Him-in a certain sense-since it is necessary in some degree that He should be before (as) He is Father.
We may ask: in a certain sense the Father precedes the Son? Novatian would have the Son to be eternal, yet he would have the Father precede the Son. The subordination of the Son is the nemesis of the Trinity doctrine. Athanasius saw this and tried to correct it dogmatically. Augustine saw it, and said, “The Son is equal to the Father, but not while the Son is in the flesh.” The incarnation is the only area of distinction left to the Trinitarian.
Before Nicea and Augustine, Irenaeus seems to provide the best framework for the erection of the doctrine of the co-equal, co-eternal Trinity by taking the phrase “in the beginning” (John 1:1) to mean “from eternity,” and not the creation as in Genesis 1:1. Thus, he wrote, “The Son is always co-existing with the Father, from of old, yea, from the beginning” (Against Heresies, II, 30, 9). And, “For thou, 0 man, art not an uncreated being, nor didst thou always CO-exist with God, as did the Logos” (II, 25, 3).
As Wolfson says, the twofold stage theory also held the eternal Logos in the mind of God before He begat it, but Irenaeus maintained that the generation was to have no beginning at all-not even “a beginning preceded by an eternal existence in the mind of God.”
Clement of Alexandria had held to the twofold stage theory of the Logos, but his brilliant pupil Origen, perhaps influenced through Hippolytus and Irenaeus, gave a new twist to the single stage theory of the generation of the pre-existent Logos. In his view, God was always continually generating the Son, “the brightness of His glory.” Wolfson believes that Origen got this idea from a fellow student, Plotinus, the pagan philosopher. It is possible that both Plotinus and Origen had studied under Ammonius Saccas, whom some have viewed as a former Christian.
Another step in the origin and development of the Trinity was the introduction of the view that the Holy Spirit and the Logos were two distinct persons, or “somethings,” as Augustine might prefer. According to Wolfson, the Catholic fathers merely followed Philo in alleging that the Holy Spirit and the Logos were two distinct beings or persons.
When the fathers distinguished between the Holy Spirit and the Logos, they were then forced to re-interpret the writings of Matthew and John. John had written that the Logos was made flesh (John 1:14), but Matthew had said that that which was conceived in Mary was of the Holy Ghost (Matthew 1:20). And Jesus clearly identified the Father as His Father. This presented a problem for the founding fathers of the Trinity. How did they respond to this paradox?
Justin Martyr and Theophilus stated that the Holy Spirit in Luke 1:35 and Matthew 1:20 was not the “third person,” but rather the Logos in a sense. Justin wrote, “It is wrong to understand the Spirit and power of God as anything else than the Logos, who is also the firstborn of God” Apology I, 33).
Most of the Catholic fathers found a solution in explaining the supernatural birth of Jesus by maintaining that the members of the Trinity had “cooperated” in the virgin birth. Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Novatian held this view. Otherwise, they would have been forced to admit that God the Father was the Holy Spirit, and that He was the Logos, as John 1:1 explicitly states: “And the Word [Logos] was God.”
John of Damascus (c. 675-749 A.D.) was to later have a more dogmatic solution: “He was made by the whole Trinity, for the works of the Trinity are not separable. . . when one of the Three is mentioned as the author of any work, the whole Trinity is to be understood as working.”
These early Catholic fathers of the Trinity rejected poytheism, but having accepted the Platonic triad of Philo, they were forced to compromise the unity of God. God could no longer be an absolute unity, but must perforce be a relative unity. This is a weakness of the Trinity doctrine; it can no longer uphold the absolute unity of God. There must be a relative unity that will allow within it the combination of three distinct, separate elements, or subsistences.
Wolfson tells us that the Catholic fathers were constantly aware of “a consciousness of opposition to the Jewish conception of the absolute unity of God,” and that this awareness is noticeable “throughout everything the Fathers say in support of the Trinity.” This is why we must respectfully maintain that the Trinity teaching is reactionary in its essence rather than a positive doctrine.
Genesis 1:26 also seems to have played a role, through interpretation, in the origin of the Trinity. Irenaeus interpreted Genesis 1:26 to indicate a plurality of divine Persons within the Godhead:
For with Him were present the Logos (Word) and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, by whom and in whom, freely and spontaneously, He made all things, to whom also He speaks saying, “Let us make man after our image and likeness.”
Where had such a novel interpretation originated? It is very likely that it can be traced to Philo, who had written concerning Genesis 1:26:
When Scripture says that God made man in the image of God, it means he made him in the image of the “second God,” who is the Logos. For nothing mortal can be made in the likeness of the Most High One and Father of the universe.
The Logos doctrine, in spite of all denials, and subsequent tinkering by theologians, postulates Christ in the role of the “second God.” Today, the terminology has been slightly altered to state, “second Person.”
Werner wrote that “every significant theologian of the Church, in the pre-Nicene period, has actually represented a Subordinationist Christology.”
Origen, perhaps the most renowned of the Catholic fathers except for Augustine, succeeded Clement of Alexandria as the head of the Catechetical School at the early age of eighteen. Harnack wrote that, by
the beginning of the fourth century, “the theology of the apologists had triumphed, and all thinkers stood under the influence of Origen.” Rufus Jones says of Origen, that “he made a thorough study of Plato and Numenius, and was in all his thinking profoundly influenced by the contemporary NeoPlatonic movement.”
Chadwick wrote, “Origen admires Plato and Numenius, and says Numenius was familiar with the Scriptures. . .he calls him Numenius the Pythagorean, who expounded Plato with great skill and maintained the Pythagorean doctrines.” Bell says that Origen was influenced by the Gnosticism of Egypt, and “followed Philo’s allegorical method in biblical exegesis.”
In his work, Against Celsus, who apparently protested the Catholic fathers’ use of the Greek Logos, Origen called the Logos a “second God” in three places.
Origen said that ho theos (the God) belonged to God the Father only, and that the Son was merely called theos (a god), from his interpretation of John 1:1. This argument has surfaced in modern times. Danielou attributes this interpretation of Origen to Philo’s earlier theology of the Logos. As Bell remarked, Origen “regarded the divinity of Christ as inferior to the Father’s.”
Origen’s greatest contribution to the Trinitarian theology was possibly his previously mentioned teaching on the “eternal generation” of the Son. This was in spite of the fact that Origen was a subordinationist. His doctrine contained the germs of both the Arian and the Athanasian doctrines. Origen had written in his Commentary on john’s Gospel, “We believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three essences, or substances.”
Almost all of these fathers attempted to refute Oneness theology, which was contemporary with them. Shall we assume that the convolutions of the trinitarian theology are gropings of inspired fathers wrestling with the Scriptures, and shall we ignore the Gnostic and pagan theories evidenced by these men?
It is incorrect to assume that these men did not identify the Christian Logos with the pagan Logos. Justin Martyr wrote, “They who have lived in company with the Logos, are Christians, even if they were accounted atheists. And such among the Greeks, were Socrates and Heraclitus.”
Martin Werner has written, “The earliest form of the Christian Logos doctrine was without doubt that of Gnosticism. . .the Logos doctrine was foreign to the oldest apostolic tradition.”
Rufus Jones describes the Catholic fathers’ early use of the Logos doctrine in this way:
This Logos doctrine is, then, the first great speculative stage of Christian thought. It is an outstanding instance of the way in which Christianity seizes upon current, prevailing conceptions in the world of thought, and utilizes them in the interpretation of its central truths. Logos speculation was hoary with age when the great Christian thinkers laid hold on it and used it as though it had been an inherent feature of Christ’s own message about Himself. It soon became a part of the necessary air which learned Christians breathed, a settled doctrine and a natural habit of thought.
Harnack has said of the Logos doctrine of the early Catholic fathers, that they, “by means of a theological formula unintelligible to [the laity]. . .put the laity with their Christian faith under guardians.” Finally, he wrote, “The philosophic Christology arose, so to speak, at the circumference of the Church, and thence moved gradually to the center of the Christian faith.” He noted that Valentinus, Origen, and the Cappadocians mark the stages of progress.
The Logos doctrine, and hence the Trinity doctrine, did not originate in the center of the apostolic teaching, but was introduced from the outside. It is time to reevaluate the Trinity doctrine.
A great leap forward in the evolution of the Trinity doctrine was accomplished through the controversy of the rhetorician-priest, Tertullian (c. 150-230 A.D.), with Praxeas. Tertullian makes the differentiation of the Logos more sharp and definite than earlier writers had done by insisting on using the Latin word persona both for God and for the Logos. So intent on affirming the distinction in persons was Tertullian, that, like Justin who had said that the Son was heteron ti “something other” from the Father, Tertullian considered “Filium et Patrem esse aliud ab alio.” Claude Welch sees the trinitarian arguments of Tertullian as basically a reaction to Patripassianism, and he wrote, “Part of the objection to patripassianism was undoubtedly that it offended the sensibilities of men dominated by a Greek concept of the immutablity of God.”
Tertullian, Welch noted, prepared his trinitarian formula to exclude all monarchianism, with these words, “una substantia, tres personae,” “one substance, three persons.” The words persona and hypostasis, says Welch, must properly be considered in terms of analogy. In Tertullian’s formula, the word persona was drawn from “the law courts, and the stage, where it refers to a particular in a dispute, or a role in a drama.” But the formula of the East, which trinitarians developed, tends in the “opposite direction,” according to Welch-Mia ousia, treis hypostaseis. Hypostasis, Welch says, means “concrete independence,” or “actuality,” as contrasted with mere appearance, or attribute, in Tertullian’s formula, and “the illustration offered by the Cappadocian fathers was of three men, bound together in the unity of essence, manhood.”
Robert Paul Roth, a Lutheran professor, has recognized the intra-trinitarian differences between the Cappadocians, emphasizing the distinctions, and the Athanasians, emphasizing the relative unity, even
recently to the point of admitting “modes of being.” This co-existence of opposite views within trinitariantheology has permitted the common trinitarian masses to uphold or entertain the “social Trinity,” with its polytheistic implications, while paying homage to the relative unity of Athanasianism. While Roth might not subscribe to the abovecomment, he himself is searching for a better formula to describe the divine Godhead, and he writes:
While the biblical revelation provides the materials for the doctrine of the Trinity, the actual formulation was a Church product. Consequently, we must ask: (1) whether the words of the historical formulation mean the same today as they were intended at the time of their origin, and (2) whether the intended meaning can be supported by Scripture.
Roth agrees with Arnold Come that it is misleading to refer to the “three Persons” of the Godhead today, as the English word “person” designates the unique, discrete, self-determining subject.” Nevertheless, Roth maintains, God still “comes to us on all three levels of relationship as Person, wholly Person, in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Then Roth says, “Perhaps this will point the way to a satisfaction of the Cappadocian concern for the personal quality of the three functions of the Godhead, while at the same time retaining the Person of God, who is a wonderfully multifarious Unity.” Moreover, Barth is said to affirm that the One God is “Person” in the “contemporary use of the term,” while Father, Son, and Spirit are related as “modes of the divine existence.”
However, a new terminology that is more satisfactory to the modern mind will not solve the problem. If God does not exist, or rather subsist, as three discrete subjects or agents, when we do away with the modern term “person” in the trinitarian formula, the Logos doctrine, a key element in the Trinity doctrine, which postulates Christ as a separate, distinct creative Agent, is destroyed.
Any attempt to create an updated, and yet scriptural, terminology to describe the divine Godhead in Trinitarian terms or otherwise, must satisfactorily, and openly without fear of charges of “heresy,” investigate the origin of the Trinity doctrine.
by W. C. Parkey
In evaluating this paper, three aspects will be considered: (1) the force of the argument, (2) the strength of the references, and (3) the validity of the conclusions.
First, the author is to be commended for his research and for the breadth of the scope he has undertaken to cover. He has attempted to discuss, among other things, pagan triads of ancient civilizations, the Greek “logos” doctrine, Gnosticism, the ante-Nicene fathers, the post-Nicene trinitarians, and modern commentators up to and including Barth. With such a broad scope, certain areas could not be covered satisfactorily.
A more limited area of study would have permitted the author to have more fully covered the subject and more completely established his claims. Nevertheless, the author did establish that there were ancient pagan trinities in India, Mesopotamia, Japan, Egypt and Babylon. He did not conclusively verify, however, that they all came from Babylon.
In his discussion of the Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophers, Chalfant has emphasized that a triad was one feature of their teaching. It is easy to accept the idea that theologians who had been schooled in Greek philosophy carried over their ideas in attempting to explain the Godhead.
The author’s premise that “the history of divine triads is not derived from the Old Testament” is correct, but one school of study maintains that the Hebrews were polytheistic until the later Old Testament period, with Jehovah as chief among the gods. The author has done nothing to establish his claim regarding tne Heorews with either biblical or extra-biblical references.
William Chalfant has dealt with one of the most difficult areas of Oneness research and writing, that of nonbiblical sources. However, he has accomplished what he proclaimed as his goal; he has investigated the origin of the doctrine of the Trinity. He has found a trinity in pagan religions, in philosophical speculations, and in theological reflection and formulation. If he has not satisfactorily established where the idea of a trinity originated, he must continue his research, because only from some source outside of the sacred Scriptures will the answer be found.
The sources quoted by the author are very valuable for the student of the origins of the Trinity. Various areas that he has introduced are worthy of more in-depth study and expanded treatment, which he is scholastically and biblically capable of making.
In regard to the potential criticism that there are few biblical references in the paper, one must realize that the origin of the Trinity cannot be found in the Bible; one must look for it elsewhere.
In conclusion, the author has chosen one of the most difficult of subjects, with the broadest of scopes. In the time frame allotted to him, he has presented a great amount of worthwhile material. The nature of the material is difficult for the average person and even the average preacher to understand and assimilate, much less to evaluate.
This paper will be accepted most readily by those who already agree with the author’s conclusions. Convincing someone who is already biased in favor of the Trinitarian position will take further research, with a more detailed analysis of each of the maor points of the paper.
by Edward Kozar
We should first thank the author for taking on such a huge task and doing such a tremendous job. The amount of time spent in both research and writing must have been immense, but rewarding.
The paper is a scholarly and intellectual statement. It would not be an embarrassment to our movement if it were in the hands of faculty members of the Harvard, Yale, or Princeton divinity schools. However, it creates a dilemma akin to the two-faced mask of Greek tragedy and comedy; one side has a big smile while the other has a frown.
The paper is of such a high scholarly tone that it brings both a smile of satisfaction and a frown of question. We smile knowing that critics will no longer be able to throw stones, screaming, “No scholarship! No research!” But we also know that the paper is so scholarly that the average church member may have deep trouble benefitting from it. For example, many may have difficulty with the statement, “The contents and the antecedent construction of the doctrine obviate such a view.” We must not question God as He continues to call to the ministry some men who are not college graduates.
Strengths of the Paper
1. The author has assembled a mass of material and resources. The three sections of the paper totaled 102 foot note references. This indicates that the conclusions drawn from the stated facts are not the lone voice of some religious guru in the wilderness, but are sound thought provoking realities that our critics must face and deal with.
2. The three sections of the paper flow together in a natural order:
1st – Ancient triads (trinities)
2nd – Jewish-Greek linking of concepts
3rd – Christianized triad (trinity)
3. There is a large amount of eye-opening material which shows that ancient nations and cultures had triads in their religious worship.
4. Baal, the false god most of us are familiar with, is shown by the author to be connected to the ancient triads.
5. The author gathered abundant material which showed that differing interpretations of Logos opened the door for the false teaching of a multi-person Godhead. Apparently, some men came into the church but kept some of their old worldly philosophies, much like a Baptist preacher might see the truth of Jesus-name baptism and receive the Holy Ghost but bring with him his doctrine of eternal security.
6. Another strength was the material proving the ancient philosophers’ and church fathers’ idea of the subordination of Logos, or Jesus, as a lesser deity. This is a major point in the development of the Trinity.
7. The emphasis placed on Philo as a transition figure is excellent. It seems Philo put his left hand out to the Jews and his right hand out to the Greeks, causing much doctrinal confusion.
8. It was enlightening to have scholarly confirmation that there are conflicting and opposing views about the Trinity even amongst Trinitarians. At times it seems that they are totally united in a fight against us, but this is not so.
9. It was excellent research that uncovered the admission that the idea of the Trinity came from the fringes of the church and not the center. The author correctly concludes that the Trinity did not originate in the center of apostolic teaching.
Weaknesses of the Paper
1. The author never directly addresses the claim of our Trinitarian critics that the Word of God itself is the origin of the Trinity.
2. The paper could be strengthened by telling us how the ancient cultures came to have triads in their worship. Were these triads developed from backsliding monotheists? Or were these old trinities coming down from a mass polytheism to a more simple threeness polytheism? In other words, what was before the triads?
3. In this same section-ancient triads-perhaps the paper could have referred to Old Testament passages (not because the trinity is found there, but to reference time and concepts). Abraham was called out of
Ur. The land of Mesopotamia is the home of three groups the author describes as worshipers of triads-the Chaldeans, Sumerians, and Babylonians. Joshua 24:2 states, “Even Terah the father of Abraham served other gods.”
4. The first stage of the two-fold stage theory of the Logos is defined, but the author never directiy tells us what the second stage is.
5. The three stages of progress of the false teaching are referred to but not fully explained. (See note 43.)
6. The paper might have been strengthened by giving some of Praxeas’ teachings. We know of these today only from Tertullian’s quotations of him in Against Praxeas.
7. The author quotes statements of both Justin and Tertullian. Me provides an interpretation of Justin’s words, but does not do so for Tertullian’s statement. (See note 45.)
8. Perhaps this last point is outside the scope of the subject, but the paper states that some of the church fathers accepted pagan and philosophical concepts which developed into the doctrine of the Trinity. But exactly how did Origen and Tertullian influence the average saint in Antioch, Bithynia, and Corinth?
Much ancient Trinitarian writing has been left to us. In comparison, very little was written, or at least survived, on the Oneness position of the early believers. If only the false teachers write, the second, third, fourth, and subsequent generations will have nothing to read but false explanations of the doctrine.
We now have fifth-generation Pentecostals, and even sixth-generation children who are being born. Will they grow up in a church that teaches absolute truths or false doctrines?
Peter preached the message of truth on the Day of Pentecost. His day was a day of truth. Six generations down from that apostle, what was the church teaching his great-great-great grandchildren? It was not the pure truth of the Word. It was Gnosticism, a subordinate Christ, a philosophical threeness; it was the trinity! Into the church had come the seeds and blossoms of false doctrine.
We say we want to be like the early church, and in many ways we should. But there is one thing the early church did that we should want no part of-and that is a falling away into the false doctrine of the trinity. Unitl Jesus comes, let us never give up the precious doctrine of the one true God-the mighty God in Christ.
(The above material was given at the Oneness Pentecostal Symposium, 1986)
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