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The Trinity Defined and Refuted1

by Sean Finnegan (



A Brief History

Once the idea of literal pre­existence was articulated by Justin Martyr in his Logos Christology[2] in the mid­second century a chain reaction of philosophic speculation began.[3] Justin, himself trained in Greek Philosophy, sought with noble intent, to explain Christianity to his fellow philosophers, but alas, some things are better left in their original cultural context, lest the concepts themselves are mutated in the translation process. Already prior to the mid­second century Marcion had combined the Gnosticism battled by the apostles in the late first century with Christianity in order to explain the pre­existence of Christ.[4] He said that Christ only appeared human, that he was in fact, purely divine. Marcion was rejected and vigorously opposed by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and others, though the basic Gnostic idea of a heavenly demiurge/spirit coming down to save mankind persisted.

In the late second century a leather­seller named Theodotus taught that that Jesus was a genuine human being virginally begotten by the Father who, at his baptism, received Christ and thus became the Son of God, empowered to do miracles. Under this scheme Christ left Jesus at his death and went back to the right hand of the Father. Theodotus was excommunicated by the African Bishop of Rome, Victor I, just prior to the third century. His views, however, continued and were modified by Bishop Paul of Samosata who said that the Logos (pre­existent Word) was impersonal and that the decent of the Spirit is what made Jesus into the Son of God at his baptism.[5] Paul was examined and removed from his position at the council of Antioch in AD 269 by seventy bishops, priests, and deacons.

Tertullian (AD 150-225) was the first to use the term Trinity in the early third century. He taught that there were three persons in one substance, though in his writings Trinity Symbolmany times he spoke of them as separate beings. He also taught that there was an inequality of rank between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (subordinationism). Parallel to this Origen (AD 185-254) theorized that when the Scripture said “today I have begotten you,” that “today” is really eternity for God. Thus, the concept of “eternal generation” or that Jesus was “eternally begotten” came into the church. He contradicted Tertullian by teaching that nothing in the Trinity can be called greater or less but at the same time thought that since the Spirit was the first creation of the Father through the Son, the Spirit is “God” but not “the God.” In both of these proto-orthodox men we lack complete equality between the Father, Son, and Spirit and both of them appear to fall closer to the side of tri-theism than Trinitarianism.

In the early third century a priest named Sabellius worked out a theology in an effort to express the “threeness” of God that some were postulating while taking seriously the oneness demonstrated by the Scriptures. His “solution” was to say that God was one person who manifested himself in three modes[6]. Thus, the Father is the Son is the Holy Spirit, three revelations of the one God. It could even be said that the Father actually suffered on the cross (Patripassionism). He was officially excommunicated as a heretic in AD 220 by Calixtus I.

In the early fourth century a priest in Alexandria named Arius confronted his Bishop, Alexander, because the Bishop was teaching that the Son of God had always existed. Arius asserted that the Son came into existence via special creation by the Father just before the Universe was made. His views ignited what came to be called the Arian Controversy which was the primary impetus for the Council at Nicaea in AD 325 which excommunicated all who say that the Son had a beginning. The church had by now strayed so far in its theological speculations that when it came time to work out the creed only the most erudite philosophy of the day could handle the paper thin distinctions and paradoxes.

If we take the New Testament as a criterion, we cannot deny that the Council of Nicaea certainly maintained the New Testament message and did not Hellenize it totally. But it is equally beyond dispute that the council remained utterly imprisoned in Hellenistic concepts, notions and thought-models which would have been completely alien to the Jew Jesus of Nazareth and the earliest community. Here in particular the shift from the Jewish Christians apocalyptic paradigm to the early church Hellenistic paradigm had a massive effect.[7]

Nevertheless, Nicaea was just one step towards orthodox Christology. Once the Father and Son were declared to share the same essence a host of other questions needed to be asked and answered. Apollinarius, the Bishop of Laodicea, tried to work out the implications of Nicaea by stating that in Christ’s human body dwelt a divine soul (or ego). In this way Christ was fully human (in body) and fully divine (in mind). However, this perspective was condemned as heresy and the council of Constantinople (AD 381) which specifically affirmed that Christ had a human soul though he was fully divine. In this same council, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa worked into the Nicene Creed the addition of the Holy Spirit (which later resulted in the great split between Eastern and Western churches[8]). Only after AD 381 can one speak of the Trinity in the modern sense as it was not until this council that it was fully worked out by these Cappadocian philosophers.

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[1] For more resources on this subject, log on to

Justin saw in the Logos (the “word” from John 1.1) a bridge from the thought world of Judaism to that of the Greek philosophers. Since the logos was already understood as the divine rationality it was not a large step to personalize it.

[3] Justin is not the only one who sees Christ as pre-existent at this early date, the Gnostics had been teaching in apostolic times that Christ only appeared human (that he did not actually come in the flesh). Also 2 Clement 9.5 (depending on which Clement wrote it) represents an early or simultaneous expression of pre-existence.

A byproduct of combining Gnosticism with Christianity was disregarding the Hebrew Scriptures along with any other overtly Jewish documents/concepts.

This is called adoptionism—that Jesus became the Son of God through his godliness and commitment.

The view of Sabellius is adhered to today by the Universal Pentecostal Church and T.D. Jakes.

Hans Kung, Christianity: Essence, History, and Future, Continuum International Publishing Group In, NY, NY, ©1994, page 182.

The split occurred because in the creed of 381 the Holy Spirit was said to proceed from both the Father and the Son. The Eastern Church did not (and still has not) accepted the clause, “and the Son.”

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