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The Doctrine of the Trinity:
It must not be assumed that the doctrine of the Trinity appeared first in Christianity in its present complete, if complex, form. It was not introduced into the Church en bloc, but was indeed, as all historians admit, a gradual evolution; first, by the admission of innocent ideas which to their authors were probably quite true in their proper and intended meaning, but which were quickly seized upon by the more philosophically minded of their body, and developed. The doctrine was, in fact, the gradual growth of years, not being revealed in all its glory and mystery until the publication of the Creed of St. Athanasius, and which at the authoritative declaration of it as truth, even in the simpler form of the Nicene Creed by Constantine (A.D. 325), was the immediate cause of not a little friction and rebellion.
It is well known that the word "Trinity" does not occur in any portion of Scriptures, and it is a matter of fact worth particularly remarking that the word does not appear in Christian literature until about the end of the second century.
The word to express the idea developed gradually as the doctrine itself was evolved. The first mention of a word at all similar is made by Theophilus, bishop of Antioch (who occupied the See, A.D. 168), in his second book to Autolycus, chap. xv., where he says:
"In like manner also the three days which were before the luminaries, are types of the Triados (or Trias) of God, and His word, and His wisdom."
It would be impossible to discover the Trinity in Unity, or the Unity in Trinity from this extract, for Theophilus was merely comparing certain phases of creation with certain phases or attributes of God, and in the same work, book i., chap. iv., in comprehensively defining God, he does not refer at all to either the Son or the Holy Ghost. He says: -
"And He is without beginning, because He is unbegotten; and He is unchangeable, because He is immortal. And He is called God (Theos) on account of His having placed all things on security afforded by Himself; . . . He is Lord, because He rules over the Universe; Father, because He is before all things; Fashioner and Maker, because He is Creator and Maker of the Universe; the Highest, because of His being above all; and Almighty, because He Himself rules and embraces all."
And again he writes in the second book, chap. xxxv.: -
"We must serve in holiness of heart and sincerity of purpose only the living and true God, who also is Maker (i.e., Father) of the Universe."
Some thirty years later a further development took place in this word, for Tertullian then introduced the word "Trinitas." Hagenback in History of Doctrine, vol. i., p. 120, mentions both the first word by Theophilus and this latter word by Tertullian.
"The Greek word trias was first used by Theophilus; the Latin term trinitas, which has a more comprehensive doctrinal import, was introduced by Tertullian."
Though this word does not appear until so late a period in Christian writings yet it was common in the writings of the philosophers, from whom Mosheim informs us much was borrowed by the more philosophically minded in the early Church. Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chap. xxi., writes on this matter that:
"If Theophilus was the first to employ the word Triad, Trinity, that abstract term, which was already familiar to the schools of philosophy, must have been introduced into the theology of the Christians after the middle of the second century."
This fact is borne out by the quotation just given from the writings of Tertullian, and from which it will be remarked how late was the introduction of the word chosen to express a doctrine which many claim had been commonly accepted as a tenet of the Christian religion for nearly two centuries.
From what has already been briefly mentioned, it will not be supposed that Christianity received this doctrine readily. It, indeed, caused the greatest controversy the Church has known, and divided Christianity into innumerable sects, who in turn urging their own peculiar views of the subject, gave rise to those most extraordinary conceptions of the Godhead which were so prevalent at that period and which has made the fourth century so famous for all time.
Mosheim writing of the fourth century records that:
"The subject of this fatal controversy, which kindled such deplorable divisions throughout the Christian world, was the doctrine of three Persons in the Godhead, a doctrine which in the three preceding centuries had happily escaped the vain curiosity of human researches, and have been left undefined and undetermined by any particular set of ideas."
Dean Milman also writes of the same period that:
"The Trinitarian controversy was the natural, though tardy, growth of the Gnostic opinions; it could scarcely be avoided when the exquisite distinctness and subtlety of the Greek language were applied to religious opinions of an Oriental origin. . . . The first Christians were content to worship, with undefined fervour, the Deity as revealed in the Gospel. They assented to, and repeated with devout adoration, the words of the Sacred Writings, or those which had been made use of from the Apostolic age; but they did not decompose them, or, with nice and scrupulous accuracy, appropriate peculiar terms to each manifestation of the Godhead." --History of Christianity, vol. ii., p. 352.
And again: -
"The Emperor Constantine himself is said frequently to have appeared without his imperial state, and, with neither guards nor officers around him, to have mingled in the debate, and expressed his satisfaction at their unanimity, whenever that rare virtue adorned their counsels. For Constantine, though he could give protection, could not give peace to Christianity. . . . Momentous questions, which, up to that time, had been entirely left to a small intellectual aristocracy, had been calmly debated in the villa of the Roman senator or the grove sacred to philosophy, or discussed by sophists whose frigid dialectics wearied without exciting the mind, had been gradually brought down to the common apprehension. The nature of the Deity; the state of the soul after death; the equality of mankind in the sight of the Deity -- even questions which are beyond the verge of human intellect; the origin of evil; the connexion of the physical and moral world had become general topics; they were, for the first time, the primary truths of a popular religion, and naturally could not withdraw themselves from the alliance with popular passions. . . . The first civil wars which divided Christianity were those of Donatism and the Trinitarian controversy." --History of Christianity, vol. ii., pp. 295, 296.
If, however, this doctrine had truly been delivered by Jesus Christ, and His apostles had preached it in all places, how was it that such confusion arose when the doctrine was more fully preached? It would certainly have been welcomed as a complete definition of their conception of their God; at least by the Church proper, and acclaimed by them as the top stone of Divine revelation. The very refusal of the early believers to receive the doctrine is sufficient refutation of the tenet to seekers after Truth in these modern times: it is the verdict of history against the truth of the Trinity.
Let it not be assumed that the above extracts are isolated ones, for Ecclesiastical historians of the period have written volumes upon the certainty of early corruption. An endeavour has been made to depict the state of the primitive Church, in an earlier chapter, and it was there shown how that men -- converts from philosophic sects -- quickly took to themselves not only the reins of this simple body, but arrogated to themselves the right to decide upon the beliefs of their flock.
For the sake of emphasis upon this perversion of the teaching of the original Church, two extracts are here given to focalise the two main points particularly affecting the period. Firstly, That there entered the folds of the Church, men of a character quite antagonistic to the simple precepts of the body, and who, without delay, sought to bring them up-to-date, but which of course was equivalent to imbuing them with the current persuasions and conceits.
"The sacred and venerable simplicity of the primitive times, which required no more than a true faith in the word of God and a sincere obedience to His Holy laws, appeared little better than rusticity and ignorance to the subtile doctrines of this quibbling age." -Mosheim, Fourth Century.
Of the second point, the certainty that the philosophers assumed control of the Church and gained their contentions is testified to by the following lines from the work of the Duke of Grafton:
"It is apparent to me that the Christian religion has been corrupted from very early times, and that these corruptions have been mistaken for essential parts of it, and have been the cause of rendering the whole religion incredible." -Quoted Stannus, Origin of Doctrine of Trinity, p. 23.
What the real effect of Platonism was on the world has been briefly mentioned, but may be more fully calculated from the writings of Dean Milman, who is always conservative in his opinions and records:
"It may be doubted whether Plato himself impersonated the Logos, the Word or Reason, of the Deity; with him it was rather an attribute of the Godhead. . . . Platonism had gradually absorbed all the more intellectual class; it hovered over, as it were, and gathered under its wings all the religions of the world. It had already modified Judaism; it had allied itself with the Syrian Mithriac worship of the Sun, the visible Mediator, the emblem of the Word; it was part of the general Nature worship; it was attempting to renew Paganism, and was the recognised and leading tenet in the higher Mysteries. Disputes on the nature of Christ were indeed coeval with the promulgation of Christianity. . . . The imperfect Christianity of the Ebionites had long ago expired in an obscure corner of Palestine. In all the other divisions of Christianity, the Christ had more or less approximated to the office and character of this Being which connected mankind with the Eternal Father." -Milman, History of Christianity, vol. ii., p. 355.
The history of the founding of the city of Constantinople also contributes an important item to the proper understanding of the period when the "Trinity" was the subject of acute debate, and particularly of the dedication of St. Sophia, the church erected by Constantine, the great patron if not president of that Council of Nice, which officially inaugurated the doctrine of the Trinity into Christian worship. The religious world was in a quandary, as to the beliefs and the offices of its various ministers. The writer just quoted makes a brief statement on their condition:
"The solemn dedication of the church of St. Sophia was celebrated by a prelate who denied the similitude of nature between the Father and the Son. The whole Christian world was in confusion; these fatal feuds penetrated almost as far as the Gospel itself had reached." -Vol. ii., p. 447.
Thus the ground was clear and the period ripe in the surrounding spheres of thought from which men had entered the fold of the Church, as already shown, for the reception of ideas into the Church which so promptly followed, and as a consequence in the light of the first extract from Mosheim, the Church was corrupted and rent into innumerable sects, and the pure doctrine of Jesus Christ was adulterated by philosophy falsely so called, to such an extent that the religion of the current churches is now incredible, and impossible of harmony with the revealed divine laws and precepts.
The following further extract from the work of Dr. Mosheim, is exceptionally interesting, as it not only records the introduction of this poisonous system into Christianity, but it also notices the views held in relation to it by the bishops of certain of the churches:
"This Platonic philosophy was adopted by such of the learned at Alexandria, as wished to be accounted Christians, and yet to retain the name, the garb, and the rank of philosophers. In particular, all those who in this second century presided in the schools of the Christians at Alexandria, Athenagoras, Pantaenus, and Clemens Alexandria, are said to have aproved of it. These men were persuaded that true philosophy, the great and most salutary gift of God, lay in scattered fragments among all the sects of philosophers: and therefore, that it was the duty of every wise man, and especially of a Christian teacher, to collect those fragments from all quarters, and to use them for the defence of religion and the confutation of impiety. Yet this selection of opinions did not prevent them from regarding Plato as wiser than all the rest, and as especially remarkable for treating the Deity, the soul, and things remote from sense, so as to suit the Christian scheme." -Mosheim, vol. i., p. 152.
The Translator of Mosheim's Ecclesiastical History, James Murdock, D.D., adds a note relative to this extract which is very important:
"This cultivation of philosophy by Christian teachers greatly displeased those who were attached to the ancient simple faith, as taught by Christ and His apostles; for they feared, what afterwards actually happened, that the purity and excellence of divine truth would suffer by it. Hence the Christians were divided into two parties -- the friends of philosophy and human learning, and the opposers of them. The issue of the long contest between them was, that the advocates of philosophy prevailed."
So difficult indeed was it discovered to be to persuade the Christians who more strongly held to their first love to accept this doctrine, which current theology now would have all believe has existed concurrently with the doctrines "once for all delivered unto the saints," that it was at last found necessary, to effect some standing for this doctrine in Christianity, to resort to legislation.
Theodosius, the Emperor of Rome -- the emperors with a sole exception had been advocates of the Christian religion since the days of Constantine -- in A.D. 381 with his authority as Emperor, commanded all to bow the knee to this mystery of mysteries. Gibbon observes, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chap. xxvii., that:
"Theodosius declared his resolution of expelling, from all churches in his dominions, the bishops and their clergy who should obstinately refuse to believe, or at least to profess, the doctrine of the Council of Nice. His lieutenant Sapor was armed with the ample powers of a general law, a special commission, and a military force. . . . In the space of fifteen years, Theodosius promulgated at least fifteen severe edicts against the heretics; more especially against those who rejected the doctrine of the Trinity; and to deprive them of every hope of escape, he sternly enacted that, if any laws or rescripts should be alleged in their favour, the judges should consider them as the illegal productions of either fraud or forgery."
The necessity of such severity is not quickly perceived in view of the illogical position of endeavouring to force upon Christians this definition of their God, when such a conception had been received direct from God at first, confirmed by Jesus Christ, and extensively promulgated by apostles and early fathers, as is contended, for nearly three centuries!
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