Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wrestling With the Watch Tower: Development of the Trinity

In "Church Fathers and the Trinity," we examined the Watch Tower's claim that early "Church Fathers" did not teach a Trinitarian understanding of God's nature. In so doing, we discovered that the Watch Tower lies in their brochure, and that in fact the ancient theologians they quoted did teach that the Son of God is eternal and equal with the Father, two Persons but one God in substance and essence. Their brochure, "Should You Believe in the Trinity?", continues in a section entitled, "How Did the Trinity Doctrine Develop?"


"AT THIS point you might ask: 'If the Trinity is not a Biblical teaching, how did it become a doctrine of Christendom?' Many think that it was formulated at the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E.

That is not totally correct, however. The Council of Nicaea did assert that Christ was of the same substance as God, which laid the groundwork for later Trinitarian theology. But it did not establish the Trinity, for at that council there was no mention of the holy spirit as the third person of a triune Godhead."

Much could be said in refutation of this short introduction alone; remember, the Church Fathers leading up to Nicaea had already been teaching for over two centuries that "Christ was of the same substance as God." What is important about this introduction, however, is the impression given that the Council did not teach that the Holy Spirit is one of the Persons in the Trinity.

First, recall that in "Church Fathers and the Trinity" we looked at the teachings of Tertullian, who wrote in his Against Praxeas,

"Following, therefore, the form of these analogies, I confess that I call God and His Word— the Father and His Son— two. For the root and the tree are distinctly two things, but correlatively joined; the fountain and the river are also two forms, but indivisible; so likewise the sun and the ray are two forms, but coherent ones. Everything which proceeds from something else must needs be second to that from which it proceeds, without being on that account separated. Where, however, there is a second, there must be two; and where there is a third, there must be three. Now the Spirit indeed is third from God and the Son; just as the fruit of the tree is third from the root, or as the stream out of the river is third from the fountain, or as the apex of the ray is third from the sun. Nothing, however, is alien from that original source whence it derives its own properties. In like manner the Trinity, flowing down from the Father through intertwined and connected steps, does not at all disturb the Monarchy, while it at the same time guards the state of the Economy." (Chapter 8, emphasis mine)

In Tertullian's mind, the tree emanates from the roots but is of the same substance or essence, not a new, separate creation. In the same way, the Son emanates from the Father but is of the same substance or essence. But we see in this quote that Tertullian adds the Holy Spirit, saying that He comes from the Father and the Son in like manner. Continuing with his analogy, he teaches that just as the fruit proceeds from the tree but is of the same substance, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son and is of the same substance. Thus, Tertullian very explicitly teaches that the Holy Spirit is part of the Trinity, just as the Church had historically believed.

Second, it is not exactly true that "there was no mention of the holy spirit" as part of the Trinity at Nicaea. If one removes the intermediate Christological statements, here is what one reads:

"We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God...And in the Holy Ghost." (Nicene Creed)

That the Holy Spirit was included as part of the Trinity is clear. The Watch Tower's claim is based on the fact that Jesus is explicitly said to be "of the substance of the Father," whereas the Holy Spirit is not. Why? Because nobody was claiming He wasn't. The Nicene Council was gathered in response to the heresy being perpetuated by Arius, who for nearly 10 years had been teaching that Jesus was created by God and of a different substance. The Church Fathers we looked at who preceded Nicaea taught that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were co-eternal and of the same substance; Arius began to preach otherwise.

So when the Council gathered, their purpose was to refute Arius' heretical claim that Jesus was not God. This is evident from the anathema they included:

"And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion — all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them."

The bishops at Nicaea simply weren't assembled to counter a claim that the Holy Spirit wasn't God. Such a claim did not exist. Hence, there was no need to explicitly state that He is "of the substance of the Father."

The brochure then goes on to discuss Roman emperor Constanine's role in the Council:


"FOR many years, there had been much opposition on Biblical grounds to the developing idea that Jesus was God. To try to solve the dispute, Roman emperor Constantine summoned all bishops to Nicaea. About 300, a fraction of the total, actually attended...

What role did this unbaptized emperor play at the Council of Nicaea? The Encyclopædia Britannica relates: 'Constantine himself presided, actively guiding the discussions, and personally proposed . . . the crucial formula expressing the relation of Christ to God in the creed issued by the council, "of one substance with the Father" . . . Overawed by the emperor, the bishops, with two exceptions only, signed the creed, many of them much against their inclination.'
Hence, Constantine's role was crucial. After two months of furious religious debate, this pagan politician intervened and decided in favor of those who said that Jesus was God. But why? Certainly not because of any Biblical conviction. 'Constantine had basically no understanding whatsoever of the questions that were being asked in Greek theology,' says A Short History of Christian Doctrine. What he did understand was that religious division was a threat to his empire, and he wanted to solidify his domain.

I skipped a paragraph that discusses whether or not Constantine was a genuine Christian and whether or not he properly understood Christian doctrine. This is irrelevant, for though Constantine did assemble the council of bishops at Nicaea, he didn't play the instrumental and forceful role the Watch Tower claims he did. Much could be said in refutation of the Watch Tower's argument in these paragraphs; indeed, much has been said. I will include links to several resources at the end of this post. Here, I will just give a brief summary of what really happened at Nicaea, in my own words. If you wish to study it in more depth, please do.

First, by saying "a fraction of the total" number of bishops attended, the Watch Tower gives the impression that a much larger percentage of the Church was misrepresented which might have held to views on the nature of Jesus Christ that differed from those who did attend. I would like to see evidence in support of this notion. The fact is, as we'll see, these bishops were SO united in their belief that it is fair to say--until evidence is presented to the contrary--that they fairly represented the rest of the Church. This is how political polls, for example, work today. Imagine if Rasmussen conducted a poll of 300 voters selected at random from across America, and 298 of them said they intended to vote for the same candidate. The implications are clear.

Second, by saying, "Constantine...personally proposed...the crucial formula expressing the relation of Christ to God in the creed issued by the council," and that "the bishops, with two exceptions only, signed the creed, many of them much against their inclination," this brochure leads the reader to believe that Constantine proposed a new view of this relationship, and that many of the bishops in attendance were pressured to accept this new view against their better judgment. This is simply false. What Constantine proposed was a term, a translation of a term that was already in use by the Church, in an attempt to reconcile a debate over terminology; the vast majority of the Council were already in agreement as to the doctrine communicated by the terminology they were debating.


As we discovered in the previous entry in this series, the Church Fathers leading up to Nicaea had been teaching that the Son of God was co-eternal and equal with the Father. Some of them, however, began to use questionable terminology in teaching this co-equality. For example, Tertullian wrote the following in Against Praxeas:

"while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons— the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." (Chapter 2, emphasis mine)

Tertullian wrote, over a hundred years before Constantine assembled the bishops at Nicaea, that the Father and the Son were "of one substance" (unius substantiae). This is, in fact, the Latin equivalent of the Greek word Constantine proposed, homoousios meaning "of one substance." Really, then, Constantine did not propose a new term at all, but merely a translation of a term that was already in use.

The bishops of Nicaea were divided into three groups. One of those groups, a tiny minority of all who attended, agreed with Arius, who taught that the Father created the Son and that they were "of a different substance." The other two groups, comprising the vast majority of the attendees, rejected Arius' heresy, and agreeing with each other that the Father and Son are both God, co-eternal and equal with one another. For what reason, then, were they divided?

One group favored use of "of one substance" in stressing the equality of, and divinity shared by, the Father and the Son. The other group, however, noted that the term had been misused by proponents of another heresy, that of modalism. Modalists believed, not only that the Father and the Son are "of one substance," but they are one and the same Person. That is, when the Son prayed to the Father in the garden of Gethsemane, He was praying to Himself. In this view, there is no real difference between the Father and the Son; they are merely two masks worn by the same Person.

These two groups did not disagree that the Son was equal with the Father. Many were not comfortable with the term proposed by Constantine, "of one substance," but this was only because of how it had been misused by heretics who denied the interpersonal relationship between the Father and the Son. Thus, the VAST majority of the assembled bishops were Trinitarians.


The brochure concludes their discussion of Constantine and Nicaea thusly:

"None of the bishops at Nicaea promoted a Trinity, however. They decided only the nature of Jesus but not the role of the holy spirit. If a Trinity had been a clear Bible truth, should they not have proposed it at that time?"

As we've seen, this is a bold and outright lie. The bishops at Nicaea DID promote a Trinity, for they included the Holy Spirit in their creed, saying, "We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God...And in the Holy Ghost." And the Church Fathers who preceeded them taught the same. They didn't need to repeat that the Holy Spirit was "of one substance" with the Father; that wasn't up for debate.

The brochure continues under the heading, "Further Development:"

"AFTER Nicaea, debates on the subject continued for decades. Those who believed that Jesus was not equal to God even came back into favor for a time. But later Emperor Theodosius decided against them. He established the creed of the Council of Nicaea as the standard for his realm and convened the Council of Constantinople in 381 C.E. to clarify the formula.

That council agreed to place the holy spirit on the same level as God and Christ. For the first time, Christendom's Trinity began to come into focus.

Yet, even after the Council of Constantinople, the Trinity did not become a widely accepted creed. Many opposed it and thus brought on themselves violent persecution. It was only in later centuries that the Trinity was formulated into set creeds. The Encyclopedia Americana notes: 'The full development of Trinitarianism took place in the West, in the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages, when an explanation was undertaken in terms of philosophy and psychology.'"

As has already been shown, the middle paragraph above is simply false. The Holy Spirit had already been viewed as part of the Trinity before Nicaea, and this was affirmed at Nicaea. I needn't say more. As for the surrounding paragraphs, it is true that the debate continued. Furthermore, it is true that the Arians gained some favor for a time. But this was for political reasons. The emperors preferred the view that Jesus was a sort of "divine creature" because it opened the door for them to be viewed similarly, thus strengthening their rule.

However, what caused the belief that the Father, Son and Spirit are equal and "of one substance"--which, again, had already been the historic Christian position leading up to Nicaea--to eventually "win" was its adherence to Scripture. It became cemented in Christian theology, defeating the unbiblical Arian view and those similar to it, because the Bible teaches that God is one in being and three in Person. As James White wrote in "What Really Happened at Nicea?":

"Modern Christians often have the impression that ancient councils held absolute sway, and when they made "the decision," the controversy ended. This is not true. Though Nicea is seen as one of the greatest of the councils, it had to fight hard for acceptance. The basis of its final victory was not the power of politics, nor the endorsement of established religion. There was one reason the Nicene definition prevailed: its fidelity to the testimony of the Scriptures...

During the course of the decades following Nicea, Athanasius, who had become bishop of Alexandria shortly after the council, was removed from his see five times, once by force of 5,000 soldiers coming in the front door while he escaped out the back! Hosius, now nearly 100 years old, was likewise forced by imperial threats to compromise and give place to Arian ideas. At the end of the sixth decade of the century, it looked as if Nicea would be defeated. Jerome would later describe this moment in history as the time when 'the whole world groaned and was astonished to find itself Arian.'

Yet, in the midst of this darkness, a lone voice remained strong. Arguing from Scripture, fearlessly reproaching error, writing from refuge in the desert, along the Nile, or in the crowded suburbs around Alexandria, Athanasius continued the fight. His unwillingness to give place — even when banished by the Emperor, disfellowshipped by the established church, and condemned by local councils and bishops alike — gave rise to the phrase, Athanasius contra mundum: 'Athanasius against the world.' Convinced that Scripture is 'sufficient above all things,' Athanasius acted as a true 'Protestant' in his day. Athanasius protested against the consensus opinion of the established church, and did so because he was compelled by scriptural authority. Athanasius would have understood, on some of those long, lonely days of exile, what Wycliffe meant a thousand years later: 'If we had a hundred popes, and if all the friars were cardinals, to the law of the gospel we should bow, more than all this multitude.'

Movements that depend on political favor (rather than God’s truth) eventually die, and this was true of Arianism. As soon as it looked as if the Arians had consolidated their hold on the Empire, they turned to internal fighting and quite literally destroyed each other. They had no one like a faithful Athanasius, and it was not long before the tide turned against them. By A.D. 381, the Council of Constantinople could meet and reaffirm, without hesitancy, the Nicene faith, complete with the homoousious clause. The full deity of Christ was affirmed, not because Nicea had said so, but because God had revealed it to be so. Nicea’s authority rested upon the solid foundation of Scripture. A century after Nicea, we find the great bishop of Hippo, Augustine, writing to Maximin, an Arian, and saying: 'I must not press the authority of Nicea against you, nor you that of Ariminum against me; I do not acknowledge the one, as you do not the other; but let us come to ground that is common to both — the testimony of the Holy Scriptures.'"

The Church became united in Trinitarian doctrine because it is the consistent message of Scripture, as we will see in this series and in another series, "My Lord and My God." In order to advance their message, the Watch Tower must resort to bold and outright lies, deception and revisionist history. Those of us who adhere to the Truth of Scripture needn't resort to deception: the Truth will always win.


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