The Bible Insights Weekly e-letter is freely available upon request.

Yes! Please Subscribe Me

Bible Insights Weekly

Enrich your spiritual thinking.

UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, January 13 2022

The surprising origins of the Trinity doctrine

Barely two decades after Christ's death and resurrection, the Apostle Paul wrote that many believers were already "turning away . . . to a different gospel" (Galatians 1:6). Christ Himself had also warned His followers: "Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name . . . and will deceive many" (Matthew 24:4-5).

Just as Jesus and the New Testament writers had foretold, various heretical ideas and teachers infiltrated the early Church. As 3 John 9-10 shows, by late in the first century, conditions had grown so bad that false ministers openly refused to receive representatives of the Apostle John and were excommunicating true Christians from the Church!

A very different religion, with many concepts and practices rooted in ancient paganism, took hold and transformed the faith founded by Jesus Christ. Edward Gibbon, the famed historian, referred to this troubling period as a "dark cloud that hangs over the first age of the church" (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1821, Vol. 2, p. 111). Historian Jesse Hurlbut tells us: "For fifty years after St. Paul's life a curtain hangs over the church...and when at last it rises, about 120 A.D. with the writings of the earliest church fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul" (The Story of the Christian Church, 1970, p. 33).

This "very different" church, teaching "another Jesus" and a "different gospel" (2 Corinthians 11:4; Galatians 1:6-9), grew in power and influence, and within a few short centuries dominated the mighty Roman Empire! This was the setting in which the doctrine of the Trinity emerged. Various ideas sprang up as to the exact nature of Jesus Christ. Was He a mere man who became God? Was He created by God the Father, or did He exist eternally with the Father? Many borrowed or adapted from pagan religions, replacing and changing the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. (See the chapter "The Rise of a Counterfeit Christianity" in our free booklet The Church Jesus Built for an overview of this critical period.).

This dispute over the nature of Christ led the Roman emperor Constantine the Great to convene the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. Constantine, although held by many to be the first "Christian" Roman Emperor, was actually a sun-worshiper who was only baptized on his deathbed, but he recognized the value of religion in uniting his empire. Historian Henry Chadwick attests, "Constantine, like his father, worshipped the Unconquered Sun" (The Early Church, 1993, p. 122). As to the emperor's embrace of Christianity, Chadwick admits, "His conversion should not be interpreted as an inward experience of grace . . . It was a military matter. His comprehension of Christian doctrine was never very clear" (p. 125).

The dispute over the nature of Christ came to be known as the Arian controversy. Arius, a priest from Alexandria, Egypt, taught that Christ, because He was the Son of God, must have had a beginning and therefore was a special creation of God. Opposing the teachings of Arius was Athanasius, a deacon also from Alexandria. His view was an early form of Trinitarianism regarding the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as one, but at the same time distinct from each other.

When it came to the Nicene Council, The Encyclopaedia Britannica states: "Constantine... actively guiding the discussions... personally proposed... the crucial formula expressing the relation of Christ to God in the creed issued by the council... Overawed by the emperor, the bishops, with two exceptions only, signed the creed, many of them much against their inclination" (1971 edition, Vol. 6, "Constantine," p. 386).

The groundwork for official acceptance of the Trinity was now laid—but it took more than three centuries after Jesus Christ's death and resurrection for this unbiblical teaching to emerge. The ongoing disagreements were at times violent and bloody with many claiming to be Christian slaughtering one another over their differing views of God. Of the aftermath of the Council of Nicaea, noted historian Will Durant writes, "Probably more Christians were slaughtered by Christians in these two years (342-3) than by all the persecutions of Christians by pagans in the history of Rome" (The Story of Civilization, Vol. 4: The Age of Faith, 1950, p. 8).

In the year 381, 44 years after Constantine's death, the Council of Constantinople was convened. Gregory of Nazianzus, as archbishop of Constantinople, presided over the council and urged the adoption of his view of the Holy Spirit, leading "... the Council of Constantinople (381) to affirm the divinity of the Holy Spirit, which up to that point had nowhere been clearly stated, not even in Scripture" (The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, "God," p. 568).

The council adopted a statement that translates into English as: "We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth... and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages...And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified,,,." This declaration in 381 would become known as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, resulting in the Trinity as generally understood today becoming the official belief and teaching concerning the nature of God.

Now that a decision had been reached, the Roman Emperor Theodosius would tolerate no dissenting views and he issued an edict demanding adherence to the new teaching: "Let us believe the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity...but as for the others...they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics...They will suffer... the punishment which our authority, in accordance with the will of Heaven, shall decide to inflict" (reproduced in Documents of the Christian Church, Henry Bettenson, editor, 1967, p. 22).

Anglican churchman and Oxford University lecturer K.E. Kirk revealingly writes of the adoption of the doctrine of the Trinity: "The theological and philosophical vindication of the divinity of the Spirit begins in the fourth century; we naturally turn to the writers of that period to discover what grounds they have for their belief. To our surprise, we are forced to admit that they have none.... We are forced..., to ask ourselves whether theology or philosophy has ever produced any reasons why its belief should be Trinitarian" ("The Evolution of the Doctrine of the Trinity," published in Essays on the Trinity and the Incarnation, A.E.J. Rawlinson, editor, 1928, pp. 221-222).



Herod had ruled the province of Judea, which encompassed most of the geographical areas of the former kingdoms of Israel and Judah, for almost 40 years at the time Jesus Christ was born, with secular history and archaeology confirming his reign (Matthew 2:1-3, 7-8).




He was a great builder, initiating construction projects in at least 20 cities or towns in Israel and more than 10 in foreign cities: "Archaeological excavations have uncovered a surprisingly large amount of evidence pertaining to Herod the Great ....an Idumean who, in 41 B.C., was granted provisional rule of Galilee by Mark Antony [the friend of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra´s last lover] .... In 30 B.C. Octavian (Caesar Augustus) affirmed Herod's rule over Judea, Samaria, and Galilee .... Herod remained in power until his death in 4 B.C…." (Archaeology and the New Testament, 1997, p. 91).




But Herod was not just known for his great building, political and military skills, but also for his great cruelty. The Bible records his utter disregard for human life by describing his reaction to the birth of Jesus. When his scheme to identify the newborn Messiah failed (verses 7-8, 12), Herod lashed out with great violence: "Then Herod … sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under [the approximate age of Jesus], according to the time which he had determined from the wise men" (verse 16).




This massacre in Bethlehem was not out of character for Herod, who also had many members of his family put to death: “Herod in his rage over his family rivalries and jealousies put to death the two sons of Mariamne [his wife] (Aristobulus and Alexander), Mariamne herself, and Antipater, another son and once his heir, besides the brother and mother of Mariamne (Aristobulus, Alexandra) and her grandfather John Hyrcanus." (Word Pictures in the New Testament, Bible Explorer Software, 1997).




The New Testament description of Herod the Great is thus confirmed by what historians and archaeologists have found concerning his rulership, building projects, political strength and uncontrollable wrath toward anyone threatening his kingship.




The Census of Caesar Augustus




Luke, a meticulous historian, introduces other famous personages in his account of the birth of Christ. "And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered … So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city" (Luke 2:1-3).




Ancient papyrus census decrees have been found for the years 20, 34, 48, 62 and 104. These show a wide-ranging census normally took place every 14 years, although local counts were, at times, taken more frequently. A papyrus in the British Museum describes a census similar to Luke's account, taken in 104, in which people were ordered to return to their birthplaces: "Gaius Vibius Mazimus, Prefect of Egypt: Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those ... to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census and may also attend diligently to the cultivation of their allotments" (Frederick G. Kenyon, Greek Papyri in the British Museum, 1907, plate 30).




Joseph's Occupation in Nazareth




Joseph was a skilled craftsman who worked not only with wood, but with stone masonry. The usual term translated as "carpenter" in the Bible (Mark 6:3) is from the Greek term ‘tekton’, which has the broader meaning of 'artisan,' referring to a skilled worker who works on hard material such as wood or stone or even horn or ivory. “In Jesus' day construction workers were not as highly specialized as in today's workforce. For example, the tasks performed by carpenters and masons could easily overlap" (Richard A. Batey, Jesus & the Forgotten City: New Light on Sepphoris and the Urban World of Jesus, p. 76).




Although Nazareth was a small village in Galilee of no more than a few hundred inhabitants, Joseph and Jesus likely found steady work in the city of Sepphoris four miles away, where huge construction projects were transforming the city into a large, regional centre.




Recent archaeological excavations in Sepphoris show it to have been a bustling, prosperous city during the years Jesus grew up in nearby Nazareth. Shirley Jackson Case, professor of New Testament at the University of Chicago, remarks “.... It requires no very daring flight of the imagination to picture the youthful Jesus seeking and finding employment in the neighboring city of Sepphoris. But whether or not he actually labored there, his presence in the city on various occasions can scarcely be doubted..." (Batey, pp. 70-71).




These historical records help us better understand the background of Christ's teachings, which included illustrations drawn not just from farming and animal husbandry, but also construction, rulers and nobility, the theater, government, finance and other aspects of city life.

Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest.

UCGia