To: "Positive Atheism" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Sent: Thursday, July 12, 2001 9:33 PM
I was hoping you could answer a question for me. I was having a discussion about the Trinity with a Catholic friend and we had a little disagreement about its origin. I'm pretty sure that the idea of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit in particular) was arbitrarily created in the 15th century at some summit. Do you know the exact story (i.e. which groups/councils were involved)?
From: "Positive Atheism" <email@example.com>
Subject: When Was The Trinity Invented?
Date: Saturday, July 14, 2001 5:55 AM
The Trinity is late-fourth century, having been passed into law during the Nicene Council in C.E. 381. But the idea predates this and even predates Christianity, though in various forms. In other words, the Christians didn't invent it, they glommed it. And some say they butchered it, as well.
The concept of a Trinitarian godhead harkens from Egypt, and is also part of the Hindu godhead. Both cultures had heavily influenced Roman thought by the time the Trinitarian disputes came about, but by then, Egypt was an important center of Christian power. To try to develop a Trinitarian concept of deity from Hebrew Scripture is a stretch, at best, and even to develop it from Christian scripture is sketchy. When Erasmus published his New Testament, people objected that it did not have any passages which teach the Trinity, so he introduced, on very flimsy evidence, I 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.
Only the King James versions retain this passage without comment: the rest relegate it to footnotes.
Another passage that is used to bolster the Scriptural basis for the doctrine of the Trinity is Matthew 28:20:
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost
This really says nothing about a Trinity, but merely mentions three names. Like the other New Testament writers, Matthew was not very precise in this or any other concept. This precision came later. Other baptismal formulae instruct Christians to baptize in the name of Jesus, and some sects use this parallel to teach that Jesus is the Father and the Holy Ghost, that there is no Trinity.
Consult any Christian primer on the doctrine of the Trinity (like you'd get when you first become saved and take classes to find out what you believe) and you will see just how tough it is to justify deriving this idea from Christian Scripture, which was written by people who were not as sophisticated in self-consistency or as obsessively detailed in their dogma as later scholars became. Before the Nicene Councils consolidated The Dogma Of The One True Faith, Christian ideas along these lines were extremely varied. Many Christian sects, most notably the Jehovah's Witnesses, reject the Trinity. In fact, their materials are as good as any when trying to balance the pro-Trinity arguments of the so-called orthodox Christians. But contrary to what they say (and the Trinitarians, as well), there was no real consensus and nothing resembling precision on this or any other matter during the first few centuries of the Church.
Nevertheless, the doctrine of the Trinity is very much a litmus test in modern Christian circles. In the Introduction to Robert M. Price's book Deconstructing Jesus, Price warns:
when an evangelist or an apologist invites you to have faith "in Christ," he is in fact smuggling in a great number of other issues. For example, Chalcedonian Christology, the doctrine of the Trinity, the Protestant idea of faith and grace, a particular nineteenth-century theory of biblical inspiration and literalism, habits of church attendance, and so on, are all distinct and open questions, or should be. And yet no evangelist ever invites people to accept Christ by faith and then to start examining all these other associated issues for themselves. Not one! The Trinity, biblical inerrantism, for some even anti-Darwinism, are nonnegotiable. They say you cannot be genuinely "saved" if you do not toe the party line on these points. Thus for them, to "accept Christ" means to accept Trinitarianism, biblicism, inerrantism, creationism, and so on. All this, in turn, means that "Christ" has become a shorthand designation for this whole raft of doctrines and opinions, all of which one is to accept "by faith," on someone else's say-so. Christ has become an umbrella for an unquestioning acceptance of what some preacher or institution tells you to believe. Once the believer begins to "deconstruct" what "Jesus Christ" has come to denote in his particular religious community, he may discover that his primary religious allegiance has been utilized to manipulate him into transferring the same diehard loyalty to other secondary or tertiary issues, political and cultural.
-- pp. 11-12
Early Evangelical Christian "cults" books, particularly those modeled after Walter Martin's classic Evangelical work Kingdom of the Cults, use the doctrine of the Trinity as the primary test of orthodoxy (as well as various degrees of biblical inerrancy and other key issues which distinguish a "true" Christian from a "false" Christian). Many, for example, accept Missouri-based Mormons as Brethren because they are Trinitarian, even though they accept the Book of Mormon as Scripture. Utah-based Mormons, though, are out because they are not Trinitarian.
As I have said in some of my writings, often the key test of loyalty is that you believe a tenet that is both unique to the group and patently absurd. I suggest that the absurdity of the teaching is crucial to the test of loyalty. Believing, for example, that the sun is round, would be no test at all. But to believe the Trinity is quite an exertion, as Thomas Jefferson suggests:
It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticism that three are one and one is three, and yet, that the one is not three, and the three not one...
-- Jefferson s Works, Vol. IV, p. 205, Randolph's ed., quoted from John E. Remsberg, The Christ
But Voltaire summarizes this point most succinctly, and with much-deserved sarcasm:
The son of God is the same as the son of man; the son of man is the same as the son of God. God, the father, is the same as Christ, the son; Christ, the son, is the same as God, the father. This language may appear confused to unbelievers, but Christians will readily understand it
-- quoted from John E. Remsberg, The Christ
There is a short write-up in John Draper's History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, in Chapter 2. You can find what Draper says about the further Trinitarian disputes by typing the words "trinity draper" into the Google search engine at the bottom of our front page. This search is set to default to our website, so you can type these words in and return all the chapters in Draper's book which mention the Trinity. You'll also get, for example, Ingersoll quoting Draper, but check out Draper first, as he's the easiest read on our web site to deal with this matter.
Another study would be W. E. H. Lecky's History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, but this would be rather scarce. To get what he says (mostly later disputes and oblique mentions, but Lecky's footnotes are as informative as his text), simply type "trinity lecky" into the search engine.
The most available (that is, readable) studies of the Christian history is in The Dark Side of Christian History by Helen Ellerby. The author covers the Trinitarian disputes from a slightly different perspective. We have a few other excerpts of this book posted, but here's part of what she says about the Trinity, which is (until now) unposted.
Once Christianity gained prominence, the orthodox allowed the Roman emperor to directly influence Christian doctrine. To settle ideological disputes in the Church, Constantine introduced and presided over the first ecumenical council at Nicea in 325. In his book The Heretics, Walter Nigg describes the means of reaching a consensus:
Constantine, who treated religious questions solely from a political point of view, assured unanimity by banishing all the bishops who would not sign the new profession of faith. In this way unity was achieved. 'It was altogether unheard-of that a universal creed should be instituted solely on the authority of the emperor, who as a catechumen was not even admitted to the mystery of the Eucharist and was totally unempowered to rule on the highest mysteries of the faith. Not a single bishop said a single word against this monstrous thing.
One of the political decisions reached at the Council of Nicea established the Nicene creed, a means of keeping the belief in singular supremacy intact while simultaneously incorporating Jesus into the image of God. Jesus was not to be considered mortal; he was an aspect of God which could be understood as the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. This new Holy Trinity mimicked a much older portrait of divinity that embodied the value of difference. For instance, the vision of God in the Gnostic Secret Book of John, "I am the Father, I am the Mother, I am the Child," illustrates the concept of synergy where the whole created is greater than the sum of the parts. Another text called The Sophia of Jesus Christ tells how masculine and feminine energies together created a
... first-begotten, androgynous son. His male name is called 'First-Begettress Sophia, Mother of the Universe.' Some call her 'Love.' Now the first-begotten is called 'Christ.'
Even the later Islamic Koran mistook the Christian Trinity for this archetypal one, referring to it as the trinity of God, Mary and Jesus.
The Nicene Creed, however, established a trinity that extolled sameness and singularity. All reference to a synergy, an energy, a magic, that could result from two different people coming together was lost. The council eliminated the image of father, mother and child, replacing the Hebrew feminine term for spirit, ruah, with the Greek neuter term, pneuma. The trinity was now comprised of the father, the son, and a neuter, sexless spirit. Christians depicted it as three young men of identical shape and appearance. Later medieval sermons would compare the trinity "to identical reflections in the several fragments of a broken mirror or to the identical composition of water, snow and ice." Two popes would ban the seventeenth century Spanish nun Maria d'Agreda's book, The Mystica l City of God, for implying a trinity between God, Mary and Jesus. All allusions to the value of difference were lost; divinity was to be perceived as a singular image, either male or neuter but never female.
Yet, it was their belief in the many faces of God that helped Romans accommodate Christianity, not the uniqueness of Christian theology. Christianity resembled certain elements of Roman belief, particularly the worship of Mithra, or Mithraism. As "Protector of the Empire," Mithra was closely tied to the sun gods, Helios and Apollo. Mithra's birthday on December 25, close to the winter solstice, became Jesus's birthday. Shepherds were to have witnessed Mithra's birth and were to have partaken in a last supper with Mithra before he returned to heaven. Mithra's ascension, correlating to the sun's return to prominence around the spring equinox, became the Christian holiday of Easter. Christians took over a cave-temple dedicated to Mithra in Rome on the Vatican Hill, making it the seat of the Catholic Church. The Mithraic high priest's title, Pater Patrum, soon became the title for the bishop of Rome, Papa or Pope. The fathers of Christianity explained the remarkable similarities of Mithraism as the work of the devil, declaring the much older legends of Mithraism to be an insidious imitation of the one true faith.
-- pp. 18-24
I hope this helps a little. This is a tough study because almost everybody who writes about this particular subject has an agenda of some sort, so each writer will emphasize some elements while ignoring others, to come up with a case that fits what she or he is trying to say. That is precisely why I titled this letter the way I did.
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