A PLAIN GUIDE TO ..
Controversies in the early
Church about the Holy Trinity inflamed passions to the point of violence
between contesting parties. In the 21st century this is no longer the
case. The Trinity for most is now little more than part of the creeds
recited during church services. On examination, the doctrine turns out
to be less important than theologians make out.
The teaching of the Church about
God is at its most complex when dressed up in the elaborate costume of
the Trinity. Christians are traditionally supposed to assent to this
doctrine on pain of exclusion from the Church. But as many see it, they
are required to believe something which is at best dubiously coherent
and at worst ridiculously impossible.
The doctrine is most familiar in the form of the
Nicene Creed, recited from time to time in most churches. It is more
fully (and more incomprehensibly) stated in the Athanasian Creed which
is much longer and far more complex than the Nicene.
Someone once observed that these creeds are there not
to express what's true about God, but rather what is not true
about God. That is, they don't so much point out the way ahead as much
as block off paths we should not take.
One problem with the doctrine is its absence in the
New Testament. Traditionally, all right teaching must be based on
Scripture. Some argue that the Trinity is inherent in the biblical view
of God, even if not yet crystallised there. But most acknowledge that
the teaching was not fully formed until four centuries after Jesus died
and that it derived from a need to rebut various heresies.
This was a time when Christians were coming to terms
with Greek and Roman philosophy, and with Platonism in particular.
The Jewish philosopher Philo (20BCE
-50) influenced Christian theology substantially. He upheld Jewish
monotheism and thought that the one (Hebrew) God could be expressed well
using the Greek name "The One" (monos). Just as other numbers all
derive from the singular, so it is that everything springs from this
This sort of subject is profoundly boring to most
people and its relevance to ordinary life far from obvious. Exploring
further into the subject makes for no improvement. The terms get ever
more obscure and chains of reasoning ever more tortuous.
It is nearly impossible for us to today to fully grasp
the flaming passions aroused during those early times by small verbal
differences such as characterised conflict about the Trinity. Pitched
battles were fought between orthodox and heretics in the streets of
Alexandria in North Africa and elsewhere. Athanasius, Bishop of
Alexandria and arch-enemy of Arian heretics, was charged at the Council
of Tyre in 335 of
... smashing an episcopal chair, deposing a bishop
unlawfully, placing him under military guard and torturing him,
striking other bishops physically, obtaining his bishoprics by
perjury, breaking and cutting off the arm of one of his opponents,
burning his house, tying him to a column and whipping him, and putting
him in a cell illegally. 
All this and worse was focused on a single vowel - the
difference between the Greek words homoousios and homoiousios.
The former defined the relationship of Jesus to God as "of the same
substance". The latter defined the relationship as "of like
substance" - in other words, the Son of God was a creature, not
co-eternal with the Father. The former word has survived in the Nicene
Creed Christians recite today, while the latter is heretical.
The idea of God was sine qua non for most
people until recent times. So the question being asked in the third and
fourth centuries concerned mainly the nature of Jesus. For how, it was
asked, could Jesus be the Son of God and simultaneously fully human?
This question had to be answered effectively if Christianity was to gain
prime place in the social order of the day.
There were many rival attempts at a solution. All have been relegated
to the heresy bin, since it is the victors who write history and
A central problem was that by definition God cannot suffer - so if
Jesus was God, he couldn't suffer. Therefore, thought some people,
his agony on the cross wasn't real but apparent. Some went to the
extreme of proposing that Judas or Simon of Cyrene changed places with
Jesus just before the crucifixion and suffered in his place.
Others ventured that Jesus was created by God before anything else
and became God's instrument to create the world. He was subject to
change and therefore not God but like God. The difficulty
of the unity of Jesus and God was solved for some by proposing that he
did not have a human soul and therefore did not develop morally as we
do. That is, Jesus was not a complete human being.
The Julianists got around the difficulty by teaching that as soon as
Jesus was born he became incorruptible and immortal - and therefore was
not truly human for the rest of his life. The Monarchians took a
different tack. For them, Jesus was God only in the sense that he was
temporarily empowered or influenced by the Father.
The final (now orthodox) solution was to describe Father, Son and
Holy Spirit as three hypostases ("entities") in a single ousia
("existent"). Over the centuries this formula has been translated into
Latin as three personae in one substantia. This is
rendered in English as "three persons in one substance" - which neither
makes much sense and nor renders the original meaning accurately.
But why should anyone bother about this sort of thing? Difficult as
it may be for people today to fully appreciate, the fact is that the
nature of the "perfect" (Plato's Form) was regarded in pre-Nicene times
as critical to understanding how the world works. Christians looked to
the New Testament for their starting points in this demanding search for
John Spong puts it like this:
This was the only way the Jewish Christian people of the first
century who wrote the Bible, and the later Christians of the fourth
and fifth centuries could make sense out of their experience, given
the frame of reference set for them by their presuppositions and their
Two examples of "proof texts" in relation to the Church's thinking
The relationship between Father and Son John 10.30
in particular, and this Gospel in general, make it clear that the
Gospel's author saw the relationship between Jesus and God as that of
unity. He expressed it as words attributed to Jesus: "The Father and I
are one" (10.30).
The Spirit proceeding from the Father Paul writes that
"God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts ..." (Galatians
Given the way early theologians regarded the authority of the past,
it was inevitable that they should take such passages as the "gospel
truth" and seek to make sense of them through the only usable conceptual
framework available to them - what we now usually call neo-Platonism. In
other words, because Scripture was to them the final authority, concepts
had to be tortured until they fitted the texts.
There have been
a number of relatively recent attempts to make more sense of the Trinity.
G W F Hegel (1770-1831) set out to show that the world around us must
exist because it is necessary to human beings. We grow and develop only
because we interact constantly with other people. Similarly, he argued, it
is necessary for God the Father to have God the Son other than himself
before full self-consciousness could occur and be expressed in the Holy
Spirit (what he called Geist). In philosophical terms, the Absolute
realises itself through a dialectical process in history.
A similar argument has been advanced in the 20th century by Richard
Swinburne (following a certain Richard St Victor who died in 1173). The
former argues that because God is the essence of love, then that love
must be shared just as we humans must share when we love others,
particularly as in marriage. This is why the Son must exist. The Holy
Spirit must exist as the outcome of the shared love of Father and Son
This sort of line has proved common in recent times. Eberhard Jungel,
for example, explains in typically philosophical language how God as a
unity embraces differentiation:
... love is structurally to be defined as - in the midst of ever
greater self-relatedness - even greater selflessness, that is, as
self-relation going beyond itself, flowing beyond itself and giving
The two criteria for our attempts to understand God should now be
apparent. First, in what sense is God a unity? Second, in what sense can
we differentiate between aspects of God? There appears to be no
satisfactory way of resolving the contradictions which follow from
God as a unity The classical statement that "God
is one" appears to exclude any sort of differentiation between "parts"
or "aspects" of God. What is being said is that the Father is the same
God as the Son, but not the same person. Both are the same as the Holy
Spirit, but the latter derives from the former. This is not a valid
use of language.
Take a similar statement that "The present church is the same as the
previous church, but it isn't the same building." This is not two
different descriptions of the same thing, but two different things -
the church as a building and the church as a group which continues
independently of the building.
God as relationship Parts of the New Testament do
distinguish quite sharply between Father and Son and between God and
the Spirit. But if we look at the terms "Son" and "Spirit" it is clear
that they are metaphors. If the terms are not descriptions, and if
therefore the "persons" don't literally exist, the use of metaphors
doesn't establish an objective distinction between the "persons". And
if we can't properly differentiate between aspects or "persons" in the
unity of God, how can we require Christians to assent to the
distinctions made in the creeds?
It seems now that although Church luminaries and theologians must
continue to assert the doctrine of the Trinity, it is in fact a dead
Despite the reams that have been written about God, it is true
that the Deity is beyond human knowledge. The word "God" is, it might
be said, an empty word until it is filled by our own imaginings,
insights, experiences and metaphors.
This is true for all Christian theology. According to orthodox
teaching, the unknowable God allows us glimpses of the ineffable
through revelation. But it remains true that we can't know anything
about God directly, at first-hand. Given this, it is absurd to split
hairs with the kind of tortuous, over-subtle language games which
result in, for example, the florid phrases of the Athanasian Creed.
Very few today have either the need or the energy for this venture.
The person in the pew is largely ignorant of the results of
some 300 years of intensive research into the nature of the New
Testament. That research has revealed that the gospels are not the
historical record of the life and times of Jesus they were once
thought to be. As it turns out, they contain more theology than
A casualty of this conclusion, one now widely accepted by the
theologically literate, is that Jesus never thought of himself either
as the Messiah ("Christ") or as the Son of God. John Hick maintains
... it is widely agreed today by New Testament
scholars, including even relatively conservative
ones, that the historical Jesus did not himself
teach that he was God the Son, the second person
of a divine trinity, living a human life.
That is, the starting point of all Trinitarian theology has been
removed. With its removal the entire elaborate edifice falls away -
except insofar as it remains the creation of the Church. It has no
absolute status as revealed truth about God's nature.
In certain parts of Christendom, it is becoming increasingly
impossible to think of God as relating to humanity from another,
non-physical sphere or dimension. That which is "utterly other" is not
perceived as relating to us in the way we relate to each other. The
gaze of the Christian is beginning to turn away from speculating about
God in heaven to finding God on earth. As this happens, so also the
focus turns less to God "out there" and more to God "in here".
In this context, the Trinity as expressed in the creeds becomes at
most a way of linking to the past, of affirming continuity with what
has gone before. It has almost no reference to daily life and
therefore ceases to be either of much interest or relevance to a large
majority of Christians.
There can be little doubt that the doctrine of the Trinity will
remain part of the Church's statement of belief for a long time to come.
But just as it has never been understood by the vast majority, so also
will it remain confined most of the time to dusty tomes and liturgical
 A History of Christianity, Paul
Johnson, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976
 Why Christianity Must Change Or Die, HarperSanFrancisco,1999
 Summarised by David Brown in A Companion to Philosophy of
Religion, Blackwell, 1999
 Quoted by J B Webster in The Modern Theologians, Blackwell,
 The Myth of Christian Uniqueness, Orbis Books, 1988