The fable of the "Holy Trinity"
Initially, I focused on Judaism as the first in the set of three. Responsibility for the primordial dishonesty of this vast body of fables rested with the first of the Abes, because much--probably most--of what is noxious in Christianity and Islam stems from Judaism.
My reasons for addressing Islam were partly grounded in my reaction to what I viewed as contemporary Pollyannaism: the curious and counterfactual notion that Islam is a religion of peace; coupled with a credulous reluctance to challenge the pious legends that make up the received account of the life of Muhammad. The latter form of learned ignorance is especially prominent in popular writers like Karen Armstrong.
This piece turns to Christianity, focusing in particular on the dubious doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
The basis for the doctrine of the Trinity is commonly--though I think erroneously--detected in certain New Testament passages linking the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Two such passages are the so-called “Great Commission" of Matthew: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19); and Paul’s: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Corinthians 13:14). A few other passages exhibit similar wording.
One of these is certainly spurious. The King James Version has, as 1 John 5:7, "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one." Yet this Comma Johanneum, to use its technical designation, is a parasitic addition to the genuine text. Appearing in a few early Latin manuscripts, it is absent from the more authoritative texts of the Greek manuscripts--except for a few late examples, where the passage appears to have been back-translated from the Latin. Erasmus, the editor of the Textus Receptus on which the King James Version was based, noticed that the passage was not found in any of the Greek manuscripts at his disposal. He consequently refused to include it, as he rightly suspected that it was a gloss after the fact. Not now considered to have been part of the original text, the Comma Johanneum has vanished from modern translations of the Bible, even from the revision of the Vulgate that ranks as the official Latin text of the Roman Catholic Church.
With more than their usual dexterity, medieval theologians even proffered claims of “prefigurations” of the Holy Trinity in the Hebrew Bible. One example of this exegetical abuse is the so-called “Old Testament Trinity” of the three strangers who visited Abraham. Artists have often preferred to employ this subject to illustrate the doctrine, which is hard to visualize. (In my opinion, it is even harder to conceive in the mind, but that has not been the view of countless credulous Christians, who believe what they are told.)
Returning to the New Testament, what we find there is simply a rhetorical formula of “Father/Son/Holy Spirit.” A moment’s reflection will show that one can habitually connect three things verbally without implying that they share a common essence. For example, the expression “Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe” refers to the fact that these three disparate towns were linked by a railroad.
(Imagine, if you will, purchasing a vacation plan for Santa Fe, only to have the travel agent disclose that one has been redirected to Topeka: "after all, they're the same place.") In fact the familiar railroad nomenclature advances no claim of organic similarity, not to speak of the bizarre notion that the communities are somehow the same: “triune” as it were. Yet we are asked to believe something much grander than that on the basis of a few fragments of New Testament rhetoric.
Thinking in threes has enjoyed currency in many cultures. Ancient Egyptian religion honored several sets of three deities, including the triad of Osiris (husband), Isis (wife), and Horus (son); local triads like the Theban triad of Amun, Mut and Khonsu; as well as the Memphite triad of Ptah, Sekhmet and Nefertem, These divine triads show family relationships, but not identity. The Egyptians also held that there were three seasons in the year, not four. For its part, later Chinese civilization honored three great systems of thought: Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism.
The approach is also common in folklore (three wishes, three guesses, three little pigs, three bears, three billy goats gruff, and so forth). In medieval Europe, sorcerers would reputedly sacrifice three black animals when attempting to conjure up demons. On the other hand, a three-colored cat was a protective spirit. In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606–07) there are three witches, and their spell begins, “Thrice the brindled cat hath mewed,” reflecting such superstitions.
In common parlance, we distinguish among the animal, vegetable, and mineral realms.
This being said, the number three seems to have enjoyed particular prominence in Greek thought. For example, the Greek language has three genders. By contrast, Hebrew (like the Romance languages) has only two. Three was an important number for the Pythagoreans. Plato regarded three as being symbolic of the triangle, the simplest spatial shape, and considered the world to have been built from triangles. There were three major tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Later Greek thought conceived of the soul as having three parts.
In view of this profusion, contrasting with the relative unimportance of the number three in Hebrew thought, it is reasonable to conclude that the concept of the Holy Trinity is of Hellenic origin. And indeed most of the theologians who addressed this issue had a Greek education and wrote in that language.
Significantly, the Greek word "Trias," used by these writers to designate the Holy Trinity, does not occur in this sense in the New Testament. All this evidence points to the conclusion that the concept, like the word, was an alien intruder.
If the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a Greek intrusion into the original Semitic base of earliest Christianity, when did it first penetrate.? It is impossible to say for sure. Some scholars claim to have found adumbrations of the doctrine of the Trinity in writers of the sub-Apostolic age. An early, though typically problematic example of this claim occurs in the Church father Ignatius (d. CE 107), who exhorts the Magnesians to "prosper . . . in the Son, and in the Father, and in the Spirit." As we have noted, such triadic formulae are scarcely conclusive. In his letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius maintains that "our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost." Here Jesus is thought of as God, but the Holy Spirit seems a mere agent acting at the behest of God the Father. Ignatius does not say that the Spirit was "consubstantial, coequal, and coeternal" with the other two, as later orthodoxy claimed. No explicit Trinitarian doctrine of the equality of all three is presumed.
One thing, however, is clear. Crucial shifts in thinking began at a time when everyone who had known Jesus personally was dead. No one would have been alive to contradict the changes.
Ignatius seems to be professing bitheism (sometimes termed "binitarianism"), a belief in two equally powerful gods with complementary or antonymous properties. In contrast to ditheism, which implies rivalry and opposition (as between Good and Evil), bitheism posits two divine figures acting in perfect harmony. A curious sidelight appears in the ditheism of Marcionism, an early Christian sect which held that the Old and New Testaments were the work of two opposing gods: both were First Principles, but of different religions.
One must take Ignatius' bitheistic concept on its own terms. In the larger context, it is evident that doctrinal development might have stopped right there, and the Christian mainstream might have become Ignatian. Bitheism ratifies the divinity of Christ, who is coequal with the Father. As time went on the idea of Christ's divinity was more and more insistently asserted. I need scarcely add, however, that the notion of Christ as god is not an inevitable product of an impartial searching of the New Testament scriptures. Nevertheless, the idea of Jesus's sonship to the Father and his coequality with him came to be widely accepted, though not by the Arians.
Methodologically, the key point is this: one must resolutely abandon the idea (fetish, really) of the Holy Trinity as the starting point, understanding it instead as a point of arrival. Space does not permit limning further details of this gradual process. [Apparently, some useful material appears in a recent journal article: Mark Carpenter, "A Synopsis of the Development of Trinitarian Thought From the First Century Church Fathers to the Second Century Apologists," Trinity Journal 26.2 (Fall 2005): 293-319, which I have not seen.] I remark parenthetically that popular writers like Dan Brown are mistaken in suggesting that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity just popped up, as it were out of nowhere, at the Council of Nicaea. Such major changes in consciousness do not occur suddenly.
At all events, the doctrine of the Trinity does come into clearer focus as a result of the deliberations of the Council of Nicea, convened under the auspices of the emperor Constantine in 325. The Council adopted a term for the relationship between the Son and the Father that stood from then on as the hallmark of orthodoxy; it declared that the Son is "of the same substance" (ὁμοούσιος) as the Father. This notion was further developed into the formula "three persons, one substance." In a paradox that has proved enduring, the answer to the question "What is God?" indicates the one-ness of the divine nature, while the answer to the question "Who is God?" indicates the three-ness of "Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Athanasius, a participant in the Council, stated that the bishops were forced to use this terminology, which is not found in Scripture, because the Biblical phrases that they would have preferred were claimed by the Arians to be capable of being interpreted in a heretical sense. They therefore glommed onto the non-scriptural term homoousios (“of one substance”) in order--so they believed--to safeguard the essential relation of the Son to the Father that had been denied by Arius.
The Confession of the Council of Nicaea said little about the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the divinity and personality of the Holy Spirit was developed by Athanasius (ca. 293-373) in the last decades of his life. He both defended and refined the Nicene formula. By the end of the fourth century, under the leadership of Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus (the Cappadocian Fathers), the doctrine had reached substantially its current form. In ancient times it was challenged by the Arians and others, while the Socinians, founders of Unitarianism, began a more sustained attack in the sixteenth century.
My conclusion is that there is no certain evidence that the writers of the New Testament documents adhered to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. In all likelihood it seeped into post-Apostolic Christianity from Greek sources. Through the process of eisegesis, it was read back into the canonical texts. This tempting, but unreliable exegetical technique foreshadowed the later efforts by the rabbis to transplant their own inventions into the Hebrew Bible.
There is, however, a further line of defense. In modern times, Roman Catholic apologists have maintained that Christian doctrine has two sources: text and tradition. The doctrine of the Trinity stems from the second source. I note parenthetically that it is a little hard to understand why such an important belief as the Trinity would not have been boldly proclaimed in the New Testament itself. Instead, we must rely on later witnesses, trusting (not too wisely, it turns out) that they have faithfully transmitted the original teaching. On the face of it, this claim would appear to disregard a key feature of oral tradition. That is that, consciously or unconsciously, each participant in the chain tends to alter the formulation of what has been heard. Some of these changes are slight, while others are substantial.
This point can easily be grasped by recalling the parlor game known as “telephone.” A group of people form a line, and the person at the start whispers a phrase into the ear of his or her neighbor, and so on. By the time the message has reached the end of the line it is completely distorted.
Oh, but this does not apply in the case of Early Christian doctrines, say the apologists. The messages have a truly faithful guarantor in the form of the Catholic Church. One of the sterling characteristics of that institution is that it is unchanging--the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. At this point, most would be compelled to say, we have broached, if not actually entered the realm of fantasy.
The idea of Church Unchanging is particularly problematic during the first three centuries, when periodic Roman persecutions and the dissensions that the winning side sought to stigmatize as "heresies" wracked the emergent Christian congregations.
Some mischief stems from the translation, standard in English-language bibles, of the Greek noun ekklesia as “church,” instead of “assembly” or “congregation."
In modern English the word church has several meanings, including: 1) a building for public Christian worship; 2) the world body of Christian believers; Christendom; 3) a Christian denomination; 4) a Christian congregation; 5) organized religion as distinguished from the state. As is always the case with language, there has been much semantic evolution, a fact that the choice of words tends to mask or distort.
The Greek word “ekklesia” appears in 115 places in the received text of the New Testament. Almost invariably the English translations render it as “church,” instead of assembly, which would be more accurate. In classical Greek city states the ekklesia was a public assembly of citizens summoned by the crier; the group functioned as a legislative body. In the koine Greek of the New Testament the term refers to a groups of persons assembled together for a particular purpose. The meaning was never confined to a religious meeting or group.
The word church which appears in our English bibles derives from the Greek “kyriakon,” not “ekklesia.” The Greek word kyriakon is not found in the New Testament. Its Englsh counterpart "church" came into common use only in the sixteenth century.
This brief summary will suffice to survey the philological background. Let us now turn to the history of institutions. Reading the book of Acts and the Epistles ascribed to Paul, it is clear that the “churches” established in various parts of the Roman empire must be understood in sense no. 4 above; that is, they are congregations, and not limbs of some highly disciplined superorganism of the sort that Roman Catholicism represents today. This particularism is shown by the expression “seven churches [ekklesiai] in Asia.” The term easily leant itself to plural usage because that was the concrete situation.
In the light of these observations it is difficult to support the conclusion, common in Roman Catholic apologetic circles of yore, that Jesus founded THE CHURCH, an institution that is, to all intents and purposes, identical to the Roman Catholic Church today. In view of its unchanging adherence to primordial Christian doctrines (so we are told) we can rely with the utmost confidence on the Vatican as the faithful custodian of those doctrines--including the formerly unwritten body known as “tradition.”
These claims are vulnerable on a number of grounds. Even retaining (as convenience suggests) the conventrional rendering of ekklesia as “church,” it is crystal clear that that institution was quite different prior to 313 to what came after. In fact the two are opposed by almost 180 degrees.
This change may be illustrated by the shift of meaning of another term. As the etymology suggests, “episkopoi” (“bishops”) were originally simply overseers or straw bosses. They possessed none of the trappings of magisterium they were later to acquire under the aegis of Constantine and his successors.
With the ecumenical council of Nicaea in 325 everything changed, and three patriarchates, in effect, were confirmed to stand at the pinnacle of the hierarchy. One must be careful not to retroject Nicene norms back onto the previous era.
As far as I can see, Adolph von Harnack’s fundamental contrast between Urchristentum (the Apostolic and Subapostolic eras; and the age of the Martyrs), on the one hand, and Early Catholicism, on the other, remains valid. Only the transition to the latter created the Christian Church as we know it. This was a slow, often literally agonizing process that disembogued only with Constantine.
I turn now to the matter of texts. Between ca. 160 CE and ca. 220 a grass-roots consensus gradually emerged in several centers as to what the “New Testament” should look like. We have evidence of this complicated process from, e.g., Irenaeus of Lyons, the Muratorian Canon, and Origen of Caesarea.
In no case, that I know of, did people of this kind actually concoct scriptures. They merely sorted out what they found.
So one cannot seriously maintain that the Church was prior to the the New Testament, which it created. One might as well say that the Synagogue created the Hebrew Bible. Of course, rabbis associated with synagogues (plural) MAY have established some sort of canon at Jamnia ca. 90. But that is a far cry from their being progenitors of those documents. Even the most radical Minimalists do not make such a claim.
The actual origins of the texts remain obscure. It is unlikely, for example, that any of the Four Gospels was actually written by the“evangelist” whose name it now bears. One thing is sure, though. Since there was no such thing as THE CHURCH in those days, it could not have been the progenitor of these texts. We must reiterate another point. Never having existed, this phantom institution would not have been in a position to conserve a uniform body of “tradition” which it later "infallibly" drew upon.
The texts are the only evidence we have, and Roman Catholic efforts to trace such such patent fabrications as Purgatory and the Immaculate Conception to some primordial oral tradition must be regarded as rubbish, pure and simple. That conclusion is, I would think, a no-brainer. The same goes, I believe, for theat perennial hobgobblin known as "Holy Trinity." If we wish to understand Christian origins we must set it aside, adopting a unitarian stance as our governing hermeneutic principle.
Among Christians, the burden of proof for the Trinity lies with its adherents. Such belief does not appear to be consistent with the earliest form of Christianity.
Let me be blunt: the Holy Trinity is little more than a fairy tale.
[Note. Fairness requires that I cite some recent defenses of the traditional view of the Trinity. These are: Arthur F. Wainwright, The Trinity in the New Testament, London: SPCK, 1962; Thomas F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988; and idem, The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996.
The Scottish theologian Torrance advocates something called Trinitarian Universalism. Needless, to say I do not find these defenses convincing.]