The Master Key for Demystifying Trinitarian Dogma


The Master Key for Demystifying Trinitarian Dogma

William G MacDonald

When theological peelers pare down the skins of the onion as far as they can, advocates and critics alike agree that the integer, three, constitutes the indispensable core of the Trinitarian teaching on God. Consequently, for centuries Christian apologists have operated on the assumption that it is first necessary to convince Jews and Muslims that God is three before being able to preach the gospel to them. In order to do that the teacher must lay the Bible aside and educate the seeker with an unfamiliar nomenclature emitting an odor of philosophical mystery the conceptual tools needed to understand the Trinitarian configuration of God: three, triune, persons, ingenerateness, generation, procession, spiration, First Person, Second Person, Third Person, tres hypostaseis; mia ousia; tres personae; una substantia; the divine substance [the essence that neither generates nor is generated-Fourth Lateran Council, 1215], subsistence ["the mode by which substance becomes individualized"], one principle, ad intra relations; ad extra relations, circumincession [reciprocal existence of three persons in each other], perichoresis, efflux, ex Deo Deus, diairesis ['division'], trinity.

Of these basic 24 dogmatic building blocks, none occurs that way anywhere in the Bible, nor is the trinity taught using other plain words by the prophets, Jesus, or the apostles. To the conscientious interpreter with both ears wedged in tight between the pages of the open Bible, this absence of both the component terms and the concept gives him pause.

With simplicity of revelation the books of the Bible present univocally the integer one as the only revealed number of the God, of whom there can be neither plurality nor fractions of himself This truth of God's sublime singularity was what Israel was taught to "hear" (the 'Shema') before they received God's commands and taught them to their children (Deut 6:4-9). That oneness-of-God revelation was maintained consistently throughout the Old Testament (1 Sam 2:2-Yahveh; 2 Sam 22:32-Yahveh; Zech 12:9-Yahveh). Yahveh is one, and this, his name, occurs there 6,007 times-always is singular as well as in thousands of singular pronouns and singular verbs; is always anarthrous; and is always a proper noun, naming personally the one true God. Moreover, he remains the same God revealed in the New Testament as the father of his human son, our Lord Jesus Christ. By Jesus' full endorsement of the Mosaic Shema ('Hear'- Mark 12:29, quoting Deut 6:4), he attested the truth of God's definitive oneness. In addition there are seven more specific New Testament confirmations of the truth that God forever remains "one" (Rom 3:30; 1 Cor 8:4,6; Gal 3:20; Eph 4:6; 1 Tim 2:5; James 2:19). No higher number ever appears anywhere in authentic biblical texts to be harmonized with the ubiquitous and consistent "one."

Where, therefore, did Trinitarian architects get the theory's triple towers that protrude upward like three turrets of moist sand of a seaside castle poured from philosophical containers, including the sandy sets of triads (ingenerate, generate, proceeding; First Person, Second Person, Third Person) if holy Scripture has only "one"-never three- and makes no attempt at trinitizing? The apologists who faced the world with the gospel proclaimed what the educated Greeks considered to be "an absurdity" (1 Cor I: 23), the crucifixion of the human son of the invisible God, the son who was the life-giver and future judge of all mankind. Some of those emerging theologians [men with one foot in philosophy and one foot in the revealed faith] discovered they could take the edge off the scandal of "Christ crucified" if, disregarding Colossians 2:8, they adopted the contemporary world's concept of God as the protected shelter for their position, and do so by adapting their teaching to it, creating a "theology" of God, draped in philosophical bunting. Then Christian theology could gain a respected status by reformulation as a variant of classical philosophy.

Therefore, if not from the Bible, where within philosophy did the creaturely notion of dividing or multiplying God into three fractions or three multiples originate? Many Trinitarians would rather leave the quest for these ominous origins in doubt and escape into manufactured mysteries than to delve into philosophical presuppositions to ascertain Trinitarian historical source(s). For those who do search, there are two long-dead Greek philosophers, Empedocles and Plato, from whose teachings building stones were quarried centuries later for reconstruction of the biblical God into a divine Being countable externally or internally up to three.

Empedocles (c. 483-423 BC) from Agrigentum, Sicily, is notorious for having been the first philosopher to divide the supreme God into parts.[1] He believed that many could be one God and the one many. Empedodes "many" consisted of six gods, of which the first four are well known as the four elements. The six that made up his concept of god were these: fire, water, earth, air, and apart from them, destructive strife, and in the midst of them, love. Each deity had its own divine authority by turns, but at times they were mutual in one another.[2] Empedocles taught that literally everything has an "efflux," that every substance emits its own 'flow away' (aporroe), and by its efflux as it flows out and returns to itself it becomes perceptible to the mind. A fountain flowing up and falling back on itself illustrated his efflux. Athenagoras, a Greek apologist of the late second century (AD 127-190) who settled in Alexandria, was the first to apply Empedocles' principle in. such a way as to assert the spirit of God was God's efflux.[3] 

Plato (427-347 BC, being about four years old when Empedocles died), was the second Greek philosopher to divide or multiply the supreme God, not keeping any of Empedocles' six, although he quoted him freely. Plato had divided all reality into two parts (a dualism of spirit and matter). In the spiritual realm, he construed God to subsist of three parts in a descending order of being, in what constituted a hierarchy of deity. Here then, was Plato's deep well from which adoring theologians would later draw three components of deity:

Being, ho On, the supreme God [lit., 'the Being' (mas_) or 'Being-himself];

Nous or logos, the mediating principle of, mind' or 'word';

psyche, the world soul" (Timaeus 28-30)[4]

This Platonic analysis of God as if he were a divisible creature characterized theology in the East, having been established by Origen (AD. 185-255), who wrote the first systematic theology, and it continued through many restatements on Platonic assumptions for several more centuries as the recognized way of trinitizing.

The heights of the official conversion of the Platonic temple into a cathedral with three naves were achieved in the fourth century after Christianity suddenly became the religion of the Roman empire. At the state-run Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) belief in one God was broken down to fit the three philosophically acceptable categories of separate divine being, now substituting other terms: the Father Almighty, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit. The Father was called "one God"; [Origen' s] eternal Son was called, "God of God"; but the title God was not yet assigned to the third-ranked Holy Spirit, who was named as an object of belief Following the Council of Nicaea, the great task for the designers of philosophical garments to robe the God of the Bible was to stitch in enough gold threads of deity on the Holy Spirit's hypostasis to give divine attire to produce recognition as God; and then there would be three, even if the second and third hypostases were subordinate to the first. This new need to prove the deity of "the spirit of God" (Gen 1 :2; Rom 8:9) was never a necessity until, unlike and apart from holy Scripture, God's spirit became separated on the design-cutting table to be a third entity to match Plato's third level of deity. The next 56 years until the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381) would be spent battling over whether Plato's three divisions could be sustained by positing the Spirit as that third entity, equivalent to his world-soul. 

Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nyssa, three "Origerust" Cappadocians, were responsible for at last establishing the deity of the Spirit, considered by them to be a distinct hypostasis-unlike God's name, hand, or glory. For those with comparable Platonic presuppositions, the most convincing argument was advanced by Gregory of Nazianzus. He denied the Spirit was either generate (like the Son) or ingenerate (like the Father). Rather, reaching back into Origen's philosophical bag of more than a century before, he discovered the term, "proceed," that his mentor had applied to the Spirit, but had done little to develop.[5]

Proceed in Origen means basically the same as generate, but because it was not the identical term, it could evade all the objections brought by those in opposition to inventing shadow hypostases to fill out and sacralize Plato's system. Gregory, like Methodius of the preceding century, used Eve who was not born as his model of procession. This term cleared away the objection that if indeed, God was three, there must be either two generate Sons, or two ingenerate Fathers, or two First Principles [the Father and the Spirit].

From the Council of Constantinople (AD. 381) onward, procession became indispensable to all trinitizing, and the term was incorporated into what is now called the Nicene Creed. Thus a tertiary kind of being by procession in/of God was established that enabled the retention of:

1. the Spirit as a separate hypostasis [alias 'person' in western theology];

2. the Spirit as being fully divine, because procession was construed to be a special process of divine origination above creation and different, however slightly, from generation that could only produce a Son, and different from ingenerateness, which could subsist as an hypostasis and produce hypostases but could not be produced.

What the Council of Constantinople, and the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) that reaffirmed it, could not fix was the subordination of the second and third hypostases to the first. The Arian movement gives evidence that subordination was apparent from the time of Origen' s makeover of God onward in the East. To keep the threeness but eliminate the subordination always implicit in Platonism, a move was made in the West into Neoplatonism. The champion of this was the philosopher, Aurelius Augustinus, who began to construct his equalized trinity based on the Neoplatonic divine "essence" rather than on Being himself, the Father, as was done in the eastern creeds. The historian, Wolfson, made the following incisive analysis:

The godhood, called essence or substance-terms Augustine used in the sense in which the Stoics used ousia [i.e., substratum]-is considered by him to be the common substratum of all three persons.[6]

Augustine's approach diverged widely horn that of Origen and the Cappadocians who always accorded ontological priority to the Father and secondary and tertiary places for the Son and Spirit respectively. The shift in theorizing divine originations made by Augustine can be accounted for philosophically as the difference between Platonism (Origen's base) that had a supreme Being with subordinate expressions, and Neoplatonism (Augustine's base) that was quite pantheistic and substance-oriented, so that everything inhered in one essence. The pertinent work, Peri ton Trion Archikon Hypostasion ('Concerning the Three Subsisting Beings') was not a Trinitarian treatise of the third century, but the title of Book 1 of the fifth Ennead [Gk. 'set of nine'] written by the pagan, Plotinus (AD. 205-270). He was the chief philosopher expounding Neoplatonism, which had admixed Stoicism and therefore had become pantheistic. Plotinus' three subsisting beings consisted of being-itself, mind, and soul-all eternally generated out of the one pervasive substance. From his reading of Plot in us, Augustine learned the theory of Neoplatonism, on which his newly conceived trinity is founded, and by which philosophy he also factored out the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church.

There could be no one-person-over-another subordination in Augustine's view that conceived of the subsistence of all three persons similarly out of the one divine substance. But his trinity made all three persons subordinate to the one divine essence or substance. In order to make that equalized three, Augustine postulated the Neoplatonic one divine essence at the point of God's self-origination, but as critics are quick to point out, there are now four distinctions in play in an equation of: 1 + 3 = 4 (a quaternity). Ironically, while Augustine tried to equalize the three persons, his philosophical system can be construed-if one forgets its pantheistic essences aggrandizing the spirit as synonymous with the divine essence but also subsisting as person.  

Within about 40 years after the fall of Rome (AD. 476) when the Dark Ages began, the dogma of the trinity was finalized and spelled out in full in the so-called Athanasian Creed that demands belief in the trinity as a condition of salvation, which stipulation is reflected in the creed's Latin title taken horn its opening words, Quicunque Vult (' Whoever wishes [to be saved]'). It took 500 years after the close of biblical revelation to restructure Yahveh as a tripartite or triple Being in conformity to the prevailing philosophies of those centuries. It took another 500 years for the state church to split (A.D. 1054) over the source of origination of the third hypostasis or persona needed to complete the Platonic total of three. In the East the Spirit was last, least, and the lowest gradation of divine being, having been originated out of the Father alone. In the West, the Spirit as trinitized in the Athanasian Creed (lines 24-25) is not before or after or greater than another but coequal among the three persons. Filioque ('and the Son'), the term the western church added to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed epitomizes the persisting Trinitarian barrier between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, which denied the insertion of this term.' Augustine, while affirming the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit, asserted repeatedly in his De Trinitate that the Spirit's procession was from the Father and the Son as by one principle.[7] Instead of merely saying from the Father and from the Son, he conceived a Neoplatonic coalescence in one principle of the Father and Son. The Orthodox Church, building on the Father alone cannot accept the Filioque without causing their traditional Platonic system to collapse. It should not be thought that the deadlock between the two enormous religious bodies is over the interpretation of the Scripture because there is not a sentence[8] in the Bible stating or implying that God's spirit could ever originate or proceed into being in any form, or succession, by any route, or from any source.

The formulation of the trinity hinges on dogmatic separations of God into three coequal persons, "acknowledg[ing] each person by himself' (Athanasian Creed, line 19) in the West, and the extensions from the Father of two separate, subordinate hypostases in the East. The calcified statement of Trinitarianism, the Athanasian Creed, which is thoroughly Augustinian, emerged around the beginning of the sixth century, about 150 years after Athanasius, and reveals the three indispensable theses structuring the trinity, detailing the only differences of persons as being how each originated. The traditional formulators found two originations in/of God, forming two ontological extensions of God as is evident in its three most revealing lines:

20 The Father was neither made nor created nor begotten by anybody.

21 The Son was not made or created, but was begotten by the Father.

22 The Holy Spirit was not made or created or begotten, but proceeds from the Father and the Son.

From the standpoint of biblical revelation, attribution of any kind of origination to God, eternal or sequential, partial or total, is preposterous, creature-oriented, fatuous. Such a predication of origins-even in the form of Origen' s oxymoron, eternal generation-is the mark of speculation by creatures who cannot escape their finitude and consciousness of their own origination. Only creation in its various forms originates by the hand of the eternal God. People are originated by God, but God does not originate himself (in parts 2 and 3), except in Trinitarian drafting rooms. To be a Trinitarian one must believe that Yahveh replicated himself twice over in diminishing editions each time, or as with Augustine, that the one divine essence became subsistent in three equal personal editions. None of this assumed compounding of God by God rises above human fantasy. It qualifies for censure under the apostolic denunciation of "philosophy and hollow deceit" (CoI.2:8), just as the childish question of how God originated ranks among those "foolish and undisciplined questions" that are disallowed (2 Tim 2:23).

Trinitarians often add the trinity to their original faith in the gospel, assuming that surely this grandiose glimpse at God's self-birthing must be taught somewhere in the Bible if they would only read it all the way through. Most Trinitarians who have not questioned this accretion to the biblical faith are preconditioned to accept it, however nebulous it may seem to them, because of two trinitizers outside the ordained ministry: (1) the editors of Bible translations who elevate their translation by making all the assumed Persons to walk into the scene on stilts-using a plethora of capital letters, as "the Spirit of God" or "Holy Spirit" (in which even the adjective becomes personalized as if it were a first name). (2) Hymn writers are tempted to include the trinity in their music even though they do not know its source, assuming the trinity adds profundity, mystery, and a grace note of orthodoxy to their entire hymn. The composer of today' s most popular hymn to the trinity, 'Holy Holy Holy," was Reginald Heber, who almost 200 years ago wrote the repetitious catechismal retrain in verses one and four, "God in three persons, blessed Trinity," from which only two of the key words, "God" and "blessed," came from Scripture: Heber, like the Mormons, conceived of the three "persons" as bodily beings, manifested as individual persons already in the Old Testament. In commenting on Daniel 10:4-14 he identified "the man, dressed in linen with a belt of the finest gold around his waist" as the "appearance of the Holy Ghost in human form." Moreover, "Michael, one of the chief princes" (Dan 10: 13) who assisted the "man," (alias, Holy Ghost), was identified by Heber as none other than Christ.[9] For those in the high (i.e., liturgical and sacerdotal) church tradition, there is a third influence-the liturgical calendar that eight weeks after Easter enshrines Trinity Sunday, in which the Trinitarian colors (white that day, followed by green for the next 25 Sundays of the Trinity series leading up to Advent) are displayed.

How many ministers there are who hold creedally to the trinity but have only vague ideas about its source in pagan philosophy (read Plato and Plotinus) no one knows. But what is known is that thousands of these ignore the illogical, nonbiblical three by retreating into the squishy marsh of mystery where the average believer cannot trace their tracks. Now the Bible does speak of "the mystery of God" and immediately presents its resolution as being "Christ, in whom are concealed all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:2-3). Trinitarianism denies that "the mystery of God" has ever been revealed to believers and wraps the winding cloth of musty fourth- and fifth-century tradition around its arcane three, demonstrating to all that this view of God is not Bible-based but depends on other ancient sources. The downgrading effect of mystifying Yahveh officially as three Persons with one consciousness [or as in ever-popular tritheism: three Persons each with self-consciousness], or conversely as one Person with a triple self-consciousness is-any way the distinctions are drawn-a dark distortion of God, foreign to the prophets and apostles, and not applicable to the one Jesus meant when he said, "Yahveh our God is one" (Mark 12:29), and called him, "my father ... my God" (John 20: 17). For Bereans (Acts 17: 11), not the mists of mystery, not the traditions of men, but the Scripture as cited by Jesus is decisive for a true view of God.

To begin the study of doctrine by inhaling the pagan miasma of mystery, and not confessing the trinity's place of origin in philosophy, all the while propounding two origins in God, is to undermine the certainty of the biblical doctrines that are well grounded in holy Scripture and do not descend down the Platonic stairs or hover over the pantheistic ground of being. Any formal confession of the Trinitarian dogma requires logically that just as Karl Barth did the determinative three would be the mold into which all the rest of revelation is to be poured. The only position into which the trinity, whether the eastern or western version, will fit in a theology is as the dominant one, taking precedence over the word of God. By the beginning of the Dark Ages the dogma of the trinity had achieved that high status in the state church. In this continuing twilight there arose just a century later a new religion that would begin its call to faith, shouting, "Allah is one." Allah, who has no son, competes to occupy the position of "one God" vacated by official Christendom for philosophical correctness. Every false religion needs some element of truth to make it believable, and especially so if that truth is corrective of ensconced Views.

Being spiritual all the way to his depths, the one God of the Bible, Yahveh is indivisible as "one spirit" (l Cor 12:9,11,13 [twice]; Eph 2:18; 4:4). That truth must be "spiritually discerned" (l Cor. 2: 14). If not, it is possible to commit the error of severing God in thought wit a philosophical cleaver as if he were a created substance, i.e., flesh, and not spirit. To mention God by mentioning his spirit (Num 11 :29; Psa. 139:7-10) is to use a Hebraic terminological redundancy because in the simplest terms, just as Jesus taught, "God is spirit" (John 4:24). As "spirit" Yahveh cannot be divided or multiplied like a Stoic substance, for there is "one spirit" who is God, and who has never proceeded into being but does proceed to believers who put their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. That procession is the story of the Bible when all is told.

[1] Roy K. Hatch, God in Greek Philosophy to the Time of Socrates (Princeton: Princeton Dniv., 1931), p. 94.

[2] Hatch, GGPTS, p.95

[3] L. W. Barnard, "God the Logos, the Spirit, and the Trinity in the Theology of Athenagoras," Studia Theologica 24 (1970): 90.

[4] Levi L Paine, A Critical History of the Evolution of Trinitarianism (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1900), p_ 88.

[5] Gregory the theologian, Oratia XXX1- Theologica 5. 7-8 (Migne, PG 36 140C-141B).

[6] Harry A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Church Fathers (Cambridge: Harvard Dniv., 1956), p.353.

[7] Augustine, De Trinitate 5.14 (Migne, PL 42.8921).

[8] The spuriously offered 'proof text, John 15:26, has nothing to do with an origination of God's spirit but promises God's giving of the spirit to believers in Christ

[9] Reginald Heber, The Personality and Office of the Christian Comforter (Oxford: University Press, 1816), pp 258-271. Hebrews 1 :4-6 is the best criterion for refuting Heber's strained identification of Jesus with an archangel.

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