Trinitarian Controversies

From the earliest days of Christianity, there have been controversies surrounding the nature of God. From the revelation given in the New Testament, certain facts about the infinite God became evident. Some of these facts appeared to be contradictory at first glance. Attempts to reconcile these facts within the finite human mind have been many, and some of the proposed solutions have spoken in direct contradiction to certain teachings of Scripture.

The basic teachings of the New Testament regarding the nature of God are three, according to Grudem[1]:

1. God is three persons.

2. Each person is fully God.

3. There is one God.

Upon a moment’s consideration of these three truths, we can quickly understand why confusion would ensue. As humans, we are so confined to our limited understanding of the nature of things that it is impossible for us to imagine that three distinct persons could comprise one Being, especially if each of those persons has the full nature of that Being. In considering the Trinitarian nature of God, it becomes necessary to admit that full understanding is beyond the limited capacity of man.

Establishing the Doctrine

Before embarking upon a description of several of the erroneous attempts that have been made toward understanding God’s true nature, let us briefly review the Scriptural evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity. Obviously, the scope of this paper is not sufficient to allow a comprehensive apologetic for the Trinity; for that, the reader is referred to the works listed in the Bibliography. What follows is a short listing of Scripture citations in support of Grudem’s three statements:

1. God is three persons. In John 1:1, the “Word,” who is seen by the context to be the Son of God, is spoken of as being “with” God, and yet also God Himself. Numerous other citations make it evident that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct from each other; for example, Jesus prayed to His Father (John 17:1-3) and petitioned the Father to send the Holy Spirit to His disciples (John 14:16). Numerous personal characteristics are attributed to the Holy Spirit, establishing that He is indeed a person, and not an impersonal force (teaching, John 14:26; praying, Romans 8:26-7; bearing witness, John 15:26; speaking, Acts 8:29; etc.).

2. Each person is fully God. Scripture makes it plain that the Father is God (Matthew 6:9 and many other texts). We also learn that the Son is God (John 1:1-4; 8:58; 20:28; Colossians 2:9) and that the Holy Spirit is God (Acts 5:3, 4).

3. There is one God. Scripture is explicit about the unity of God. Deuteronomy 6:4 presents the basis of Israel’s faith: “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” See also Isaiah 45:5, 6; Romans 3:30 and 1 Cor. 8:6. Additionally, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit all share a singular “name” at Matthew 28:19, 20.

Attempts at Explanation

Unfortunately, there is nothing in human experience that exactly parallels the relationship that exists between the persons of the Trinity so as to make an adequate comparison. Human understanding is bound up with the concept that a single being must also be a single person. For this reason, some have seen the Trinity as a teaching of contradiction and have attempted to find alternate explanations for the facts outlined by Scripture. This was true even while the doctrine of God was not yet fully developed and this situation led to confusion and division in the early church.

In trying to reconcile the facts of Scripture with human reason, some have erroneously denied one or more of Grudem’s three foundational teachings. This tendency has led to the development of heretical teachings and it has been necessary that these be confronted by the church from an apologetic standpoint. The remainder of this paper will discuss some of those mistaken attempts and the movements associated with them, as well as recurrences of the same errors that have developed in modern times.

Monarchianism

As the Christian doctrine of God developed, some early believers were confused as to the nature of Christ. Some mistakenly regarded Him as a second God in addition to the Father. Others correctly understood that Jesus was a second Person in the nature of the one God. There were those, however, who failed to see the distinction between these two positions. Some of these asserted a doctrine known as Monarchianism, which emphasized the unity of God and denied the plurality of persons. In particular, some early Monarchians disagreed with the doctrine of the Logos as set forth in John’s Gospel.[2]

In itself, Monarchianism was not a fully developed doctrine, but appeared primarily in two forms: Modalism (also called Sabellianism and Modalistic Monarchianism) and Dynamic Monarchianism (also called Adoptionism). Both forms of Monarchianism deny the first of Grudem’s precepts, that God is three persons.

Modalism, or Sabellianism, was championed by a third century Roman teacher named Sabellius. The essence of the teaching is that God is a single person who manifests Himself in various ways, or “modes,” depending upon the circumstances. Just as a human being may act as a husband, a father and an employee at different times, God manifests Himself in different ways or wears different “hats” depending on the need of the current situation. Modalism thus upholds the unity of God while denying the plurality of persons.

A problem with this teaching is that an active relationship between the various members of the Trinity is described in various places in the Bible. At Jesus’ baptism, each person of the Trinity is depicted in separate activity: Jesus is being baptized, the Father is speaking from heaven and the Holy Spirit is descending like a dove (Matthew 3:16, 17). Jesus prays to His Father (Matthew 9:6; John 17:1-3). The Spirit intercedes before God the Father on our behalf (Romans 8:26-7). The modalist must deny all of these personal interactions as being real and must argue that they are either an illusion or some sort of illustrative use of language. The plain meaning of the Scripture text is thus lost.

Modalistic teachings are evident today among the doctrines of the United Pentecostal Church, which holds to the positions described above.

Adoptionism, or Dynamic Monarchianism, also emphasizes the unity of God, but denies that the Son is also the eternal God. Rather, it teaches that Jesus, the man, because of His sinless devotion to God, was “adopted” by God as His Son and hence elevated to the level of deity. This occurred either at the time of His baptism or, according to some teachers, at His ascension. While seen as divine, Jesus is not recognized as having equality with the Father. Under some iterations of this teaching, Jesus is said to have been possessed by the “Christ force,” a spiritual essence that was separate from Him as a man and entered Him at His baptism.

There have been three major occurrences of Adoptionism in church history. The earliest known Adoptionist teacher was Theodotus of Byzantium in the second century. The second century work, Shepherd of Hermas, which was accorded near-canonical status in certain parts of the church, also promoted Adoptionist ideas[3]. Later resurgences of Adoptionist teaching occurred in the eighth and twelfth centuries A.D.

In modern times, ideas similar to those of Adoptionism have been advanced in many sectors of the New Age movement, particularly the teaching that Jesus was a mere human until the “Christ” came upon Him as an external force. Some New Age proponents teach that the same deifying power is available to all humans and that man’s spiritual quest should be for such enlightenment.

Another manifestation of Adoptionism appeared among the Socinians of the 16th century A.D., who denied the preexistence of Jesus and the Trinity. Their belief was a forerunner of such groups as the modern Unitarians and the Christadelphians[4].

Arianism

Probably the best-known of the controversial doctrines that arose concerning the nature of God in the early Church is that of Arius, a bishop of Alexandria whose teachings were condemned at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.[5] Arius reasoned that, since Scripture referred to Jesus as God’s “only begotten” Son and as the “first born of all creation” (John 3:16; Colossians 1:15), He must have been created by God at some point in the past. As James White writes, “Arius insisted, ‘there was a time when the Son was not.’ Christ, to Arius, was a highly exalted, yet created, being.”[6] Like Monarchianism, Arianism denies Grudem’s tenet that God is three persons.

In refuting Arian doctrine, the Nicene Creed stated that the Son was “begotten, not made,” and further, that Christ was “of the same substance as the father.” The Greek words at the heart of the controversy were homoousios (“of the same nature”) and homoiousios (“of similar nature”). While the Council insisted that Christ and the Father were homoousios, Arius would not agree to that and instead insisted upon the use of the word homoiousios. Both the Council of Nicaea and the later Council of Constantinople rejected Arius’ view, since if Christ were not of the same (as opposed to “similar”) nature with the Father, He could not be fully God.

Arianism is refuted by numerous Scriptures that describe the full deity of the Son. A key text in this regard is Colossians 2:9: “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.”

Additionally, the texts cited by the Arians in support of Christ being a created being need not be understood in that way. The term “first born” in Colossians 1:15 would not have been understood by first-century readers, especially by those who were familiar with Old Testament use of the term, to mean “first created.” The literary and historical usages of the word show that it refers to Christ’s primacy over creation (in the sense that the firstborn son in an Israelite family had primacy over the other family members regarding the matter of inheritance). The force of the term signifies preeminence, not origin.[7] To regard the term as indicating that Christ was created at some time in the past conflicts with the context, in which He is shown to be the Creator and Sustainer of “all things,” not a part of the creation Himself.

As for the term, “only begotten” in John 3:16 and other texts as applied to Christ, this term is translated from the Greek word monogenes. This translation does not reflect later Greek scholarship, which has discovered that a more accurate translation of the term would be “one of a kind” or “unique.”[8] Again, the word does not refer to Christ’s origin but to His position before the Father.

Today, the teachings of Arianism are widely promoted by Jehovah’s Witnesses and groups that have split off from them. The Witnesses differ from Arius, however, in that the latter was willing to grant deity of a sort to Christ (though a deity which had been conferred upon a created being), while the Witnesses deny His deity altogether. Their teaching is that Jesus is Michael the archangel, who came to earth as a perfect man (but only a man) and was exalted to the heavens again after his resurrection.

Subordinationism

In contrast with the Arians, who held that Christ was a created being and therefore of a lower nature than God, subordinationism taught that the Son was eternal, but nonetheless lower than the Father in nature. The most noted proponent of subordinationism in the early church was Origen, who held that the Son eternally derives His being from the Father.[9] Origen’s teaching on this subject, like Arius’, was rejected at the Council of Nicaea. There are apparently no major proponents of this doctrine in modern times.

Tritheism

Few in the history of the church have embraced the teaching of tritheism, which asserts that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three separate gods. Such a view would deny Grudem’s assertion that there is one God. Many ancient pagan religions believed in triads of gods; these are to be distinguished from the Trinitarian monotheism of Christianity, which asserts that there are three persons who are the one God.

Perhaps the closest teaching to tritheism today can be found in the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), who believe that the three persons are indeed separate gods, but also that there are many other gods in the universe, and that man himself may become a god if he follows Mormon teaching closely.

“And the Son”

An unfortunate controversy over a minor point of doctrine that had profound ramifications for the Christian church was over three words in the Nicene Creed. The original version of the Creed simply stated that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” But a regional council at Toledo in 589 A.D. changed the Creed to read “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The Latin word meaning “and from the Son” is filioque, and this term became the name of both the added clause and of the controversy that ensued.

The clause was adopted by the western arm of the church, but rejected by the eastern part. The theological point of the filioque controversy is not completely clear in Scripture, though Grudem asserts that the weight of Scripture favors the addition of the clause.[10] Nonetheless, this seemingly minor point of doctrine became the primary theological issue in the split of the Roman Catholic Church from the Eastern Orthodox Church in the Great Schism of 1054 A.D.

Standing for Truth

The great truth understood by many generations of Christians as conforming to the teaching of Scripture and confirmed by the great church Councils is summed up in the words of the Athanasian Creed: “The Father is God; the Son is God; the Holy Spirit is God: And yet there are not three gods, but one God.” This is a difficult concept for the finite human mind to conceive, and it must be accepted by faith. Though beyond human reason, the doctrine is not contrary to reason. The controversies that have arisen among Christians over the nature of God give evidence of the difficulty of resolving the doctrine and the need to consider all of Scripture in the development of theology. The need for consideration of such theological topics by average Christians was emphasized by Jude, who wrote: “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). That faith has stood the attacks of heretics and false teachers and continues to do so. It remains for each of us to confirm it in our own hearts and to prepare ourselves for its defense.

Bibliography

Anonymous. “Adoptionism.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. February 17, 2008.
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adoptionism>.

Anonymous. “Monarchianism.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. February 17, 2008.
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monarchianism>.

Anonymous. “Socinianism.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. February 17, 2008. 

Anonymous. “The Trinity.” Online posting. February 17, 2008. Calvary Chapel Tri-Cities
<http://www.calvary-tricities.org/trinity.html>.

Baker, William H. Survey of Theology 1 Study Guide. Chicago, IL: Moody Bible Institute, 2004 rev.

Barker, Kenneth, Gen. Ed. The NIV Study Bible, 10th Anniversary Ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995.

Dorman, Ted M. Faith for all Seasons, Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001.

Guleserian, Jeff. “Jesus: First-Born or First Created?” The Watchman Expositor. February 17, 2008. 

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000 rev.

McManners, John, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Thiessen, Henry C. Lectures in Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999.

White, James R. The Forgotten Trinity. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1998.

 


Notes:

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000 rev. p. 239.

[2] Anonymous. “Monarchianism.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. February 17, 2008.

[3] Anonymous. “Adoptionism.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. February 17, 2008.

[4] Anonymous. “Socinianism.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. February 17, 2008.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000 rev. p. 243.

[6] James R. White. The Forgotten Trinity. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1998, p. 186.

[7] Jeff Guleserian. “Jesus: First-Born or First Created?” The Watchman Expositor. February 17, 2008.

[8] James R. White. The Forgotten Trinity. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1998, pp. 201-3.

[9] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000 rev. p. 245.

[10] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000 rev. p. 247.