Nontrinitarianism

Nontrinitarianism is a form of Christianity that rejects the mainstream Christian doctrine of the Trinity—the teaching that God is three distinct hypostases or persons who are coeternal, coequal, and indivisibly united in one being, or essence (from the Greek ousia). Certain religious groups that emerged during the Protestant Reformation have historically been known as antitrinitarian, but are not considered Protestant in popular discourse due to their nontrinitarian nature.

According to churches that consider the decisions of ecumenical councils final, Trinitarianism was definitively declared to be Christian doctrine at the 4th-century ecumenical councils, that of the First Council of Nicaea (325), which declared the full divinity of the Son, and the First Council of Constantinople (381), which declared the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

In terms of number of adherents, nontrinitarian denominations comprise a minority of modern Christianity. The largest nontrinitarian Christian denominations are The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”), Oneness Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, La Luz del Mundo and the Iglesia ni Cristo, though there are a number of other smaller groups, including Christadelphians, Christian Scientists, Dawn Bible Students, Living Church of God, Assemblies of Yahweh, Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ, Members Church of God International, Unitarian Universalist Christians, The Way International, The Church of God International, and the United Church of God.

Nontrinitarian views differ widely on the nature of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Various nontrinitarian philosophies, such as adoptionism, monarchianism, and subordinationism existed prior to the establishment of the Trinity doctrine in AD 325, 381, and 431, at the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Ephesus. Nontrinitarianism was later renewed by Cathars in the 11th through 13th centuries, in the Unitarian movement during the Protestant Reformation, in the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century, and in some groups arising during the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century.

The doctrine of the Trinity, as held in mainstream Christianity, is not present in the other major Abrahamic religions.

A fresco inside the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome

A fresco inside the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, November 2013. The catacomb was used for Christian burials from the late 2nd through the 4th century CE. Photo by Reuters/Max Rossi

Beliefs

Christian apologists and other Church Fathers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, having adopted and formulated the Logos Christology, considered the Son of God as the instrument used by the supreme God, the Father, to bring the creation into existence. Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Hippolytus of Rome and Tertullian in particular state that the internal Logos of God (Gr. Logos endiathetos, Lat. ratio)—his impersonal divine reason—was begotten as Logos uttered (Gr. Logos prophorikos, Lat. sermo, verbum), becoming a person to be used for the purpose of creation.

The Encyclopædia Britannica (11th edition) states: “to some Christians the doctrine of the Trinity appeared inconsistent with the unity of God. … they therefore denied it, and accepted Jesus Christ, not as incarnate God, but as God’s highest creature by whom all else was created. … [this] view in the early Church long contended with the orthodox doctrine.” Although the nontrinitarian view eventually disappeared in the early Church and the Trinitarian view became an orthodox doctrine of modern Christianity, variations of the nontrinitarian view are still held by a small number of Christian groups and denominations.

Various views exist regarding the relationships between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

  • Those who believe that Jesus is not God, nor absolutely equal to God, but was either God’s subordinate Son, a messenger from God, or prophet, or the perfect created human:
    • Adoptionism (2nd century AD) holds that Jesus became divine at his baptism (sometimes associated with the Gospel of Mark) or at his resurrection (sometimes associated with Saint Paul and Shepherd of Hermas);
    • Arianism – Arius (AD c.250 or 256–336) believed that the pre-existent Son of God was directly created by the Father, and that he was subordinate to God the Father. Arius’ position was that the Son was brought forth as the very first of God’s creations, and that the Father later created all things through the Son. Arius taught that in the creation of the universe, the Father was the ultimate creator, supplying all the materials and directing the design, while the Son worked the materials, making all things at the bidding and in the service of the Father, by which “through [Christ] all things came into existence”. Arianism became the dominant view in some regions in the time of the Roman Empire, notably the Visigoths until 589. The third Council of Sirmium in 357 was the high point of Arianism. The Seventh Arian Confession (Second Sirmium Confession) held that both homoousios (of one substance) and homoiousios (of similar substance) were unbiblical and that the Father is greater than the Son (this confession was later known as the Blasphemy of Sirmium): “But since many persons are disturbed by questions concerning what is called in Latin substantia, but in Greek ousia, that is, to make it understood more exactly, as to ‘coessential,’ or what is called, ‘like-in-essence,’ there ought to be no mention of any of these at all, nor exposition of them in the Church, for this reason and for this consideration, that in divine Scripture nothing is written about them, and that they are above men’s knowledge and above men’s understanding”;
    • Psilanthropism – Ebionites (1st to 4th century AD) observed Jewish law, denied the virgin birth and regarded Jesus as a prophet only;
    • Socinianism – Photinus taught that Jesus was the sinless Messiah and redeemer, and the only perfect human son of God, but that he had no pre-human existence. They interpret verses such as John 1:1to refer to God’s “plan” existing in God’s mind before Christ’s birth;
    • Unitarianism views Jesus as the son of God, subordinate and distinct from his Father;
    • Many Gnostic traditions held that the Christ is a heavenly Aeon but not one with the Father.
  • Those who believe that the Father, the resurrected Son and the Holy Spirit are different aspects of one God, as perceived by the believer, rather than three distinct persons:
    • Modalism – Sabellius (fl. c.215) stated that God took numerous forms in both the Hebrew and the Christian Greek Scriptures, and that God has manifested himself in three primary modes regarding the salvation of mankind. He contended that “Father, Son, and Spirit” were different roles played by the same divine person in various circumstances in history; thus God is Father in creation (God created a Son through the virgin birth), Son in redemption (God manifested himself as Jesus for the purpose of his death upon the cross), and Holy Spirit in regeneration (God’s Spirit within the Son and within the souls of Christian believers). In this view, God is not three distinct persons, but rather one person manifesting himself in multiple ways. Trinitarians condemn this view as a heresy. The chief critic of Sabellianism was Tertullian, who labeled the movement “Patripassianism”, from the Latin words pater for “father”, and passus from the verb “to suffer”, because it implied that the Father suffered on the cross. It was coined by Tertullian in his work Adversus Praxeas, ChapterI: “By this Praxeas did a twofold service for the devil at Rome: he drove away prophecy, and he brought in heresy; he put to flight the Paraclete, and he crucified the Father.” The term homoousion (ὁμοούσιον, literally same being) later adopted by the Trinitarian Nicene Council for its anti-Arian creed had previously been used by Sabellians.
  • Those who believe that Jesus Christ is Almighty God, but that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are actually three distinct almighty “Gods” with distinct natures, acting as one divine group, united in purpose:
    • Tri-theism – John Philoponus, an Aristotelian and monophysite in Alexandria, in the middle of the 6th century, saw in the Trinity three separate natures, substances and deities, according to the number of divine persons. He sought to justify this view by the Aristotelian categories of genusspecies and individuum. In the Middle Ages, Roscellin of Compiegne, the founder of Nominalism, argued for three distinct almighty Gods, with three distinct natures, who were one in purpose, acting together as one divine group or godhead. He said, though, like Philoponus, that unless the three persons are tres res(three things with distinct natures), the whole Trinity must have been incarnate. And therefore, since only the Logos was made flesh, the other two persons must have had distinct “natures”, separate from the Logos, and so had to be separate and distinct gods, though all three were one in divine work and plan. In this view, they would be considered “three Gods in one”. This notion was condemned by St. Anselm.
  • Those who believe that the Holy Spirit is not a person:
    • Binitarianism – Adherents include those people through history who believed that God is only two co-equal and co-eternal persons, the Father and the Word, not three. They taught that the Holy Spirit is not a distinct person, but is the power or divine influence of the Father and Son, emanating out to the universe, in creation, and to believers;
    • Dualism;
    • Marcionism – Marcion (AD c.110–160) believed there were two deities, one of creation and judgment (in the Hebrew Bible) and one of redemption and mercy (in the New Testament).

Modern Christian groups

  • Christadelphians hold that Jesus is the actual son of God, the Father; and that Jesus was fully an actual human (and needed to be so in order to save humans from their sins). The “holy spirit” terminology in the Bible is interpreted as referring to God’s power, or God’s character/mind (depending on the context).
  • Church of God General Conference (Abrahamic Faith).
  • The Cooneyites is a Christian sect that split from the Two by Twos in 1928 following Edward Cooney’s excommunication from the main group; they deny the Living Witness Doctrine.
  • Iglesia ni Cristo (Tagalog for Church of Christ) views Jesus as human but endowed by God with attributes not found in ordinary humans, though lacking attributes found in God. They contend that it is God’s will to worship Jesus. INC rejects the Trinity as heresy, adopting a version of unitarianism.
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Bible Student movement groups such as the Associated Bible Students) teach that God the Father is uniquely Almighty God. They consider Jesus to be “the First-begotten Son”, God’s only direct creation, and the very first creation by God. They give relative “worship” or “obeisance” (in the sense of homage, as to a king) to Christ, pray through him as God’s only high priest, consider him to be their mediator and Messiah. They believe that only the Father is without beginning, that the Father is greater than the Son in all things, and that only the Father is worthy of “sacred service” (latria). They believe that the Son had a beginning, and was brought forth at a certain point, as “the firstborn of all creation” and “the only-begotten”, that he left heaven to be born as a human, and that after his ascension to heaven he resumed his pre-human identity. They do not believe that the Holy Spirit is a person, but consider it to be God’s divine active force.
  • Mormonism, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as LDS, teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct beings that are not united in substance, a view sometimes called social trinitarianism. They believe the three individual deities are “one” in will or purpose, as Jesus was “one” with his disciples, and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit constitute a single godhead united in purpose. Mormons believe that Christ is the Firstborn of the Father, that he is subordinate to God the Father and that Christ created the universe. Mormons do not subscribe to the ideas that Christ was unlike the Father in substance, that the Father could not appear on earth, or that Christ was adopted by the Father, as presented in Arianism. Mormons assert that both God and the resurrected Christ have perfected glorified, physical bodies, but do not otherwise classify deity in terms of substance. While Mormons regard God the Father as the supreme being and literal father of the spirits of all humankind, they also teach that Christ and the Holy Spirit are equally divine and that they share in the Father’s “comprehension of all things”.
  • The Members Church of God International believes in the divinity of Christ but rejects the doctrine of Trinity.
  • Oneness Pentecostalism is a subset of Pentecostalism that believes God is only one person, and that he manifests himself in different ways, faces, or “modes”: “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost) are different designations for the one God. God is the Father. God is the Holy Spirit. The Son is God manifest in flesh. The term Son always refers to the Incarnation, and never to deity apart from humanity.” Oneness Pentecostals believe that Jesus was “Son” only when he became flesh on earth, but was the Father prior to being made human. They refer to the Father as the “Spirit” and the Son as the “Flesh”. Oneness Pentecostals reject the Trinity doctrine, viewing it as pagan and unscriptural, and hold to the Jesus’ Name doctrine with respect to baptisms. Oneness Pentecostals are often referred to as “Modalists” or “Sabellians” or “Jesus Only”.
  • Denominations within the Sabbatarian tradition (Armstrongism) believe that Christ the Son and God the Father are co-eternal, but do not teach that the Holy Spirit is a being or person. Armstrong theology holds that God is a “Family” that expands eventually, that “God reproduces Himself”, but that originally there was a co-eternal “Duality”, God and the Word, rather than a “Trinity”.
  • Swedenborgianism holds that the Trinity exists in one person, the Lord God Jesus Christ. The Father, the being or soul of God, was born into the world and put on a body from Mary. Throughout his life, Jesus put away all human desires and tendencies until he was completely divine. After his resurrection, he influences the world through the Holy Spirit, which is his activity. In this view, Jesus Christ is the one God; the Father as to his soul, the Son as to his body, and the Holy Spirit as to his activity in the world.
  • Unitarian Christians and Unitarian Universalist Christians are Holy Spirit Unitarians.

Nontrinitarian doctrine often generates controversy among mainstream Christians, most of whom consider it heresy not to believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. Under the Codes of Theodosius and Justinian, teaching and writing against the Nicene Creed were punishable crimes, resulting in the confiscation of property, banishment, or the death of the guilty.

Unitarian Universalism

Members of Unitarian Universalism do not unanimously identify as Christian. Traditionally, Unitarianism was a form of Christianity that rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Unitarianism was rejected by orthodox Christianity at the First Council of Nicaea, an ecumenical council held in 325, but resurfaced subsequently in Church history, especially during the theological turmoils of the Protestant Reformation. In 1961 the American Unitarian Association was consolidated with the Universalist Church of America, forming the Unitarian Universalist Association.

History

Unitarianism, as a Christian denominational family of churches, was first defined in Poland-Lithuania and Transylvania in the late 16th century. It was then further developed in England and America until the early 19th century, although theological ancestors are to be found as far back as the early days of Christianity. It matured and reached its classical form in the middle 19th century. Later historical development has been diverse in different countries.

Early Christianity

Main article: Apostolic Age

Most nontrinitarians take the position that the doctrine of the earliest form of Christianity was nontrinitarian, but that early Christianity was either strictly Unitarian or Binitarian, or Modalist as in the case of the Montanists, Marcionites, and Christian Gnostics. For them, early Christianity eventually changed after the edicts of Emperor Constantine I and his sentence pronounced on Arius, which was later followed by the declaration by Emperor Theodosius I in the Edict of Thessalonica, cunctos populos of February 380 that Christianity as defined in the Nicene Creed was the official religion of the Roman Empire. A year later, the Second Ecumenical Council confirmed this in a revised Creed. Nontrinitarians dispute the veracity of the Nicene Creed based on its adoption nearly 300 years after the life of Jesus as a result of conflict within pre-Nicene early Christianity during a dramatic shift in Christianity’s status.

Although nontrinitarian beliefs continued and were dominant among some peoples—for example, the Lombards, Ostrogoths, Visigoths and Vandals—for hundreds of years, the Trinity doctrine eventually gained prominence in the Roman Empire. Nontrinitarians typically argue that early nontrinitarian beliefs, such as Arianism, were systematically suppressed (often to the point of death). After the First Council of Nicaea, Roman Emperor Constantine I issued an edict against Arius’ writings, which included systematic book burning. In spite of the decree, Constantine ordered the readmission of Arius to the church, removed the bishops (including Athanasius) who upheld the teaching of Nicaea, allowed Arianism to grow within the Empire and to spread to Germanic tribes on the frontier, and was himself baptized by an Arian bishop, Eusebius of Nicomedia. His successors as Christian emperors promoted Arianism, until Theodosius I came to the throne in 379 and supported Nicene Christianity.

The Easter letter that Athanasius issued in 367, when the Eastern Empire was ruled by the Arian Emperor Valens, specified the books that belong to the Old Testament and the New Testament, together with seven other books to be read “for instruction in the word of godliness”; it also excluded what Athanasius called apocryphal writings, falsely presented as ancient. Elaine Pagels writes: “In AD 367, Athanasius, the zealous bishop of Alexandria… issued an Easter letter in which he demanded that Egyptian monks destroy all such unacceptable writings, except for those he specifically listed as ‘acceptable’ even ‘canonical’—a list that constitutes the present ‘New Testament'”.

Nontrinitarians see the Nicene Creed and the results of the Council of Chalcedon as essentially political documents, resulting from the subordination of true doctrine to state interests by leaders of the Catholic Church, so that the church became, in their view, an extension of the Roman Empire. Nontrinitarians (both Modalists and Unitarians) assert that Athanasius and others at Nicaea adopted Greek Platonic philosophy and concepts, and incorporated them in their views of God and Christ.

The author H. G. Wells, later famous for his contribution to science-fiction, wrote in The Outline of History: “We shall see presently how later on all Christendom was torn by disputes about the Trinity. There is no evidence that the apostles of Jesus ever heard of the Trinity, at any rate from him.”

The question of why such a central doctrine to the Christian faith would never have been explicitly stated in scripture or taught in detail by Jesus himself was sufficiently important to 16th century historical figures such as Michael Servetus to lead them to argue the question. The Geneva City Council, in accord with the judgment of the cantons of Zürich, Bern, Basel, and Schaffhausen, condemned Servetus to be burned at the stake for this and his opposition to infant baptism.

The Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics describes the five stages that led to the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity:

  1. The acceptance of the pre-human existence of Jesus as the (middle-platonic) Logos, namely, as the medium between the transcendent sovereign God and the created cosmos. The doctrine of Logos was accepted by the Apologists and by other Fathers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, such as Justin the Martyr, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Ireneus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Lactantius, and in the 4th century by Arius;
  2. The doctrine of the timeless generation of the Son from the Father as it was articulated by Origen in his effort to support the ontological immutability of God, that he is ever-being a father and a creator. The doctrine of the timeless generation was adopted by Athanasius of Alexandria;
  3. The acceptance of the idea that the son of God is of the same transcendent nature (homoousios) as his father. This position was declared in the Nicene Creed, which specifically states the son of God is as immutable as his father;
  4. The acceptance that the Holy Spirit also has ontological equality as a third person in a divine Trinity and the final Trinitarian terminology by the teachings of the Cappadocian Fathers;
  5. The addition of the Filioque to the Nicene Creed, as accepted by the Roman Catholic Church.

Following the Reformation

By 1530, following the Protestant Reformation, and the German Peasants’ War of 1524–1525, large areas of Northern Europe were Protestant, and forms of nontrinitarianism began to surface among some “Radical Reformation” groups, particularly Anabaptists. The first recorded English antitrinitarian was John Assheton (1548), an Anglican priest. The Italian Anabaptist “Council of Venice” (1550) and the trial of Michael Servetus (1553) marked the clear emergence of markedly antitrinitarian Protestants. Though the only organised nontrinitarian churches were the Polish Brethren who split from the Calvinists (1565, expelled from Poland 1658), and the Unitarian Church of Transylvania (founded 1568). Nonconformists, Dissenters and Latitudinarians in Britain were often Arians or Unitarians, and the Doctrine of the Trinity Act 1813 allowed nontrinitarian worship in Britain. In America, Arian and Unitarian views were also found among some Millennialist and Adventist groups, though the Unitarian Church itself began to decline in numbers and influence after the 1870s.

Points of dissent

Nontrinitarian Christians with Arian or Semi-Arian views contend that the weight of scriptural evidence supports Subordinationism, that of the Son’s total submission to the Father, and of paternal supremacy over the Son in every aspect. They acknowledge the Son’s high rank at God’s right hand, but teach that the Father is still greater than the Son in all things.

While acknowledging that the Father, Son, and Spirit are essential in creation and salvation, they argue that that in itself does not confirm that the three are each co-equal or co-eternal. They also affirm that God is only explicitly identified as “one” in the Bible, and that the Trinity, literally meaning a set of three, ascribes a co-equal threeness to God that is not explicitly scriptural.

Scriptural support

Critics of the Trinity doctrine argue that it, for a teaching described as fundamental, lacks direct scriptural support. Proponents of the doctrine assert that although the doctrine is not stated directly in the New Testament, it is instead an interpretation of elements contained therein that imply the doctrine that was later formulated in the 4th century.

William Barclay, a Church of Scotland minister, says: “It is important and helpful to remember that the word Trinity is not itself a New Testament word. It is even true in at least one sense to say that the doctrine of the Trinity is not directly New Testament doctrine. It is rather a deduction from and an interpretation of the thought and the language of the New Testament.” The New Catholic Encyclopedia states : “The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not taught [explicitly] in the [Old Testament]”, “The formulation ‘one God in three Persons’ was not solidly established [by a council] … prior to the end of the 4th century.” Similarly, Encyclopedia Encarta states: “The doctrine is not taught explicitly in the New Testament, where the word God almost invariably refers to the Father. … The term trinitas was first used in the 2nd century, by the Latin theologian Tertullian, but the concept was developed in the course of the debates on the nature of Christ … In the 4th century, the doctrine was finally formulated”. Encyclopædia Britannica says: “Neither the word Trinity nor the explicit doctrine appears in the New Testament, nor did Jesus and his followers intend to contradict the Shema in the Old Testament: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4). … The doctrine developed gradually over several centuries and through many controversies. … by the end of the 4th century, under the leadership of Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus (the Cappadocian Fathers), the doctrine of the Trinity took substantially the form it has maintained ever since.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary states: “One does not find in the NT the trinitarian paradox of the coexistence of the Father, Son, and Spirit within a divine unity.”

Catholic historian Joseph F. Kelly, speaking of legitimate theological development, writes: “The Bible may not use the word ‘Trinity’, but it refers to God the Father frequently; the Gospel of John emphasized the divinity of the Son; several New Testament books treat the Holy Spirit as divine. The ancient theologians did not violate biblical teaching but sought to develop its implications. … [Arius’] potent arguments forced other Christians to refine their thinking about the Trinity. At two ecumenical councils, NiceaI in 325 and ConstantinopleI in 381, the church at large defined the Trinity in the way now so familiar to us from the Nicene Creed. This exemplifies development of doctrine at its best. The Bible may not use the word ‘Trinity’, but trinitarian theology does not go against the Bible. On the contrary, Catholics believe that trinitarianism has carefully developed a biblical teaching for later generations.”

Questions about co-equal deity of Jesus

Raymond E. Brown (1928–1988), American Catholic priest and Trinitarian, wrote that Mark 10:18Matthew 27:46John 20:17Ephesians 1:172 Corinthians 1:31 Peter 1:3John 17:31 Corinthians 8:6Ephesians 4:4-61 Corinthians 12:4-62 Corinthians 13:141 Timothy 2:5John 14:28Mark 13:32Philippians 2:5-10, and 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 are “texts that seem to imply that the title God was not used for Jesus” and are “negative evidence which is often somewhat neglected in Catholic treatments of the subject”; that Gal 2:20, Acts 20:28, John 1:18Colossians 2:22 Thessalonians 1:121John 5:20, Romans 9:5, and 2 Peter 1:1 are “texts where, by reason of textual variants or syntax, the use of ‘God’ for Jesus is dubious”; and that Hebrews 1:8-9, John 1:1, and John 20:28 are “texts where clearly Jesus is called God”.

At Deuteronomy 6:4 (the Shema Yisrael, quoted by Jesus at Mark 12:29), the plural form of the Hebrew word “God” (Elohim) is used, generally understood to denote majesty, excellence and the superlative.The Tetragrammaton appears twice in this verse, leading Jehovah’s Witnesses and certain Jewish scholars to conclude that belief in a singular (and therefore indivisible) supremely powerful God is essential to the Shema.

John 1:1

In John 1:1 there is a distinction between God and the Logos. Trinitarians contend that the third part of the verse (John 1:1c) translates as “and the Word was God”, pointing to a distinction as subjects between God and the Logos but an equivalence in nature. Some nontrinitarians assert that the Koine Greek (“kai theos ên ho logos”) should be translated as “and a God was the Word” (or “and the Word was a god”). Based on their contention that the article of theos is anarthrous, lacking a definite article, they believe the verse refers to Jesus’ pre-human existence as “a god” as distinct from “the God”. Nontrinitarians also contend that the author of John’s gospel could have written “kai ho theos ên ho logos” (“and the Word was God”) if that were his intended meaning. Others argue that the Greek should be translated as “and the Logos was divine” (with theos as an adjective), wherein the Logos is interpreted as God’s “plan” or “reasoning” for salvation. According to Modalists, the Logos ‘becoming flesh’ refers to the “plan” or “eternal mind” of God being manifested in the birth of the man Jesus rather than the incarnation of a pre-existent Jesus.

John 10:30

John 10:30—Nontrinitarians such as Arians believe that when Jesus said, “I and the Father are one,” he did not mean that they were actually “one substance”, or “one God”, or co-equal and co-eternal, but rather that he and the Father have a “unity of purpose”, that they were one in pastoral work to save the ‘sheep’. Arians also cite John 17:21, wherein Jesus prayed regarding his disciples: “That they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may be in us,” adding “that they may be one even as we are one”. They argue that the same Greek word (hen) for “one” throughout the verse indicates that Jesus did not expect for his followers to literally become a single, or “one in substance”, with each other, or with God, and therefore that Jesus also did not expect his hearers to think that he and God the Father were one entity either.

John 20:28-29

John 20:28-29—”And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed””. Since Thomas called Jesus God, Jesus’s statement appears to endorse Thomas’s assertion. Nontrinitarians sometimes respond that it is plausible that Thomas is addressing the Lord Jesus and then the Father. Another possible answer is that Jesus himself said, “Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?” (John 10:34) referring to Psalm 82:6-8. The word “gods” in verse6 and “God” in verse8 is the same Hebrew word “‘elohim”, which means, “gods in the ordinary sense; but specifically used (in the plural thus, especially with the article) of the supreme God; occasionally applied by way of deference to magistrates; and sometimes as a superlative”, and can also refer to powers and potentates, in general, or as “God, god, gods, rulers, judges or angels”, and as “divine ones, goddess, godlike one”. Therefore, the point being that Jesus was a power or mighty one to the Apostles, as the resurrected Messiah, and as the reflection of God the Father.

2 Corinthians 13:14

2 Corinthians 13:14—”The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the sharing in the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” It is argued by Trinitarians that the appearance of “Father, Son, and Spirit” together in Paul’s prayer for Grace on all believers, and are considered essential for salvation, that the verse is consistent with a triune godhead. Nontrinitarians such as Arians reply that they do not disagree that all three are necessary for salvation and grace, but argue that the passage does not explicitly say that all three are co-equal or co-eternal.

Philippians 2:5-6

Philippians 2:5-6—”Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, [or “which was also in Christ Jesus”,] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (ESV). The word translated in the English Standard Version as “a thing to be grasped” is ἁρπαγμόν. Other translations of the word are indicated in the Holman Christian Standard Bible: “Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage” [or “to be grasped”, or “to be held on to”].The King James Version has: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God.”

Hebrews 9:14

Hebrews 9:14—”How much more will the Blood of Christ, who through an eternal Spirit, offered himself without blemish to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works, that we may render sacred service to the living God?” Most nontrinitarians agree that the Holy Spirit had no beginning, but believe it is not an actual person. Nontrinitarians contend that it is obvious that God the Father is greater than the other two entities, and that a “co-equal trinity” is not explicitly taught in the passage, but only inferred.

Terminology

Nontrinitarians state that the doctrine of the Trinity relies on non-biblical terminology, that the term “Trinity” is not found in Scripture and that the number three is never clearly associated with God necessarily, other than within the Comma Johanneum which is of spurious or disputed authenticity. They argue that the only number clearly unambiguously ascribed to God in the Bible is one, and that the Trinity, literally meaning three-in-one, ascribes a co-equal threeness to God that is not explicitly biblical.

Nontrinitarians cite other examples of terms not found in the Bible; multiple “persons” in relation to God, the terms “God the Son”, “God-Man”, “God the Holy Spirit”, “eternal Son”, and “eternally begotten”. While the Trinitarian term hypostasis is found in the Bible, it is used only once in reference to God [Heb 1:3] where it states that Jesus is the express image of God’s person. The Bible does not explicitly use the term in relation to the Holy Spirit nor explicitly mentions the Son having a distinct hypostasis from the Father.

The First Council of Nicaea included in its Creed the major term homoousios (of the same essence), which was used also by the Council of Chalcedon to speak of a double consubstantiality of Christ, “consubstantial with the Father as touching his Godhead, and consubstantial with us as touching his manhood”. Nontrinitarians accept what Pier Franco Beatrice wrote: “The main thesis of this paper is that homoousios came straight from Constantine’s Hermetic background. … The Plato recalled by Constantine is just a name used to cover precisely the Egyptian and Hermetic theology of the “consubstantiality” of the Logos-Son with the Nous-Father, having recourse to a traditional apologetic argument. In the years of the outbreak of the Arian controversy, Lactantius might have played a decisive role in influencing Constantine’s Hermetic interpretation of Plato’s theology and consequently the emperor’s decision to insert homoousios in the Creed of Nicaea.”

Trinitarians see the absence of the actual word “Trinity” and other Trinity-related terms in the Bible as no more significant than the absence in the Bible of the words “monotheism”, “omnipotence”, “oneness”, “Pentecostal”, “apostolic”, “incarnation” and even “Bible” itself. They maintain that, “while the word Trinity is not in the Bible, the substance of the doctrine is definitely biblical.”

Holy Spirit

Main article: Holy Spirit and Holy Spirit (Christian denominational variations)

Nontrinitarian views about the Holy Spirit differ from mainstream Christian doctrine and generally fall into several distinct categories. Most scriptures traditionally in support of the Trinity refer to the Father and the Son, but not to the Holy Spirit.

Unitarian

Groups with Unitarian theology such as Polish Socinians, the 18th–19th-century Unitarian Church and Christadelphians consider the Holy Spirit to be an aspect of God’s power rather than a person. Christadelphians believe that the phrase Holy Spirit refers to God’s power or character, depending on the context Similarly, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the Holy Spirit is not an actual person but is God’s “active force” that he uses to accomplish his will.

Binitarianism

Armstrongites, such as the Living Church of God, believe that the Logos and God the Father are co-equal and co-eternal, but they do not believe that the Holy Spirit is an actual person, like the Father and the Son. They believe the Holy Spirit is the Power, Mind, or Character of God, depending on the context. They teach, “The Holy Spirit is the very essence, the mind, life and power of God. It is not a Being. The Spirit is inherent in the Father and the Son, and emanates from Them throughout the entire universe.”

Modalist groups

Oneness Pentecostalism, as with other modalist groups, teach that the Holy Spirit is a mode of God, rather than a distinct or separate person in the godhead, and that the Holy Spirit is another name for God the Father. According to Oneness theology, the Holy Spirit is the Father operating in a certain capacity or manifestation. The United Pentecostal Church teaches that there is no personal distinction between God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The two titles “Father” and “Holy Spirit” (as well as others) are said to not reflect separate “persons” within the Godhead, but rather two different ways in which the one God reveals himself to his creatures. The Oneness view of Bible verses that mention God and his Spirit (e.g. Isaiah 48:16) is that they do not imply two “persons” any more than various scriptural references to a man and his spirit or soul (such as in Luke 12:19) imply two “persons” existing within one body.

Latter Day Saint movement

See also: Holy Spirit in Mormonism and God in Mormonism

In the Latter Day Saint movement, the Holy Ghost (usually synonymous with Holy Spirit.) is considered the third distinct member of the Godhead (Father, Son and Holy Ghost), and to have a body of “spirit”, which makes him unlike the Father and the Son who are said to have bodies “as tangible as man’s”. According to LDS doctrine, the Holy Spirit is believed to be a person, with a body of spirit, able to pervade all worlds.

Latter Day Saints believe that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are part of the Godhead, but that the Father is greater than the Son and the Son is greater than the Holy Spirit in position and authority, but not in nature (i.e., they equally share the “God” nature). They teach that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three ontologically separate, self-aware entities who share a common “God” nature distinct from our “human” nature, who are “One God” in the sense of being united (in the same sense that a husband and wife are said to be “one”), similar to Social trinitarianism.

A number of Latter Day Saint sects, most notably the Community of Christ (the second largest Latter Day Saint denomination), the Church of Christ (Temple Lot), and derived groups, follow a traditional Protestant trinitarian theology.

Other groups

The Unity Church interprets the religious terms Father, Son, and Holy Spirit metaphysically, as three aspects of mind action: mind, idea, and expression. They believe this is the process through which all manifestation takes place.

Groups in the Rastafari movement generally state that it is Haile Selassie who embodies both God the Father and God the Son, while the Holy (or “Hola“) Spirit is to be found within every human being. Rastas also say that the true church is the human body, and that it is this church (or “structure“) that contains the Holy Spirit.

Inter-religious dialogue

See also: Islamic view of the Trinity and Shituf

The Trinity doctrine is integral in inter-religious disagreements with the other two main Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam; the former rejects Jesus’ divine mission entirely, and the latter accepts Jesus as a human prophet and the Messiah but not as the son of God, although accepting virgin birth. The rejection of the Trinity doctrine has led to comparisons between nontrinitarian theology and Judaism and Islam.

In an 1897 article in the Jewish Quarterly Review, Montefiore describes Unitarianism as a bridge between Judaism and mainstream Christianity, calling it both a “phase of Judaism” and a “phase of Christianity”.

In Islam, the concept of a co-equal trinity is totally rejected, with Quranic verses calling the doctrine of the Trinity blasphemous. Early Islam was originally seen as a variant of Arianism, a heresy in Orthodox and Catholic Christianity, by the Byzantine emperor in the 600s. In the 700s, many Arians in Spain considered Mohammed a prophet. In the mid 1500s, many Socinian unitarians were suspected of having Islamic leanings. Socinians praised Islam, though considering the Qur’an to contain errors, for its belief in the unity of God. Bilal Cleland claimed that “an anonymous writer” in A Letter of Resolution concerning the Doctrine of the Trinity and Incarnation (1693) states that Islam’s greater number of adherents and military supremacy resulted from more closely maintaining correct doctrine than mainstream Christianity.

Most Trinitarian Christians consider the doctrine of the Trinity to be an indispensable part of the faith; consequently, many Christians do not regard nontrinitarians as Christians.

Purported pagan origins of the Trinity

The ancient Egyptians, whose influence on early religious thought was considered profound, usually arranged their gods and goddesses in groups of three, or trinities: some examples of this are the trinity of Osiris, Isis, and Horus, the trinity of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu, and the trinity of Khnum, Satis, and Anukis.

Horus, Osiris, and Isis

Horus, Osiris, and Isis

Some nontrinitarians also say that a link between the doctrine of the Trinity and the Egyptian Christian theologians of Alexandria suggests that Alexandrian theology, with its strong emphasis on the deity of Jesus, served to infuse Egypt’s pagan religious heritage into Christianity. They accuse the Church of adopting these Egyptian tenets after adapting them to Christian thinking by means of Greek philosophy.

They say the development of the idea of a co-equal triune godhead was based on pagan Greek and Platonic influence, including many basic concepts from Aristotelian philosophy incorporated into the biblical God. As an example, they assert that Aristotle stated: “All things are three, and thrice is all: and let us use this number in the worship of the gods; for, as Pythagoreans say, everything and all things are bound by threes, for the end, the middle, and the beginning have this number in everything, and these compose the number of the Trinity.” However, the words attributed to Aristotle differ in a number of ways from what has been published as the philosopher’s original text in Greek, which omits “let us use this number in the worship of the gods”, and are not supported by translations of the works of Aristotle by scholars such as Stuart Leggatt, W. K. C. Guthrie, J.L. Stocks, Thomas Taylor and Jules Barthélemy-Saint-Hilaire.

Some antitrinitarians note also that the Greek philosopher Plato believed in a special “threeness” in life and in the universe. In Plato’s work Phaedo, he introduces the word “triad” (in Greek τριάς), which they translate as “trinity”. This was adopted by 3rd and 4th century professed Christians as roughly corresponding to “Father, Word, and Spirit (Soul)”. Nontrinitarian Christians contend that such notions and adoptions make the Trinity doctrine extra-biblical. They say there is a widely acknowledged synthesis of Christianity with Platonic philosophy evident in trinitarian formulas appearing by the end of the 3rd century. They allege that beginning with the Constantinian period, these pagan ideas were forcibly imposed on the churches as Catholic doctrine. Most groups subscribing to the theory of a Great Apostasy generally concur in this thesis.

The early apologists, including Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Irenaeus, frequently discussed the parallels and contrasts between Christianity, Paganism and other syncretic religions, and answered charges of borrowing from paganism in their apologetical writings.

Hellenic influences

Advocates of the “Hellenic influences” argument attempt to trace the influence of Greek philosophers, such as Plato or Aristotle, who, they say, taught an essential “threeness” of the Ultimate Reality, and also the concept of “eternal derivation”, that is, “a birth without a becoming”. They say that theologians of the 4th century AD, such as Athanasius of Alexandria, interpreted the Bible through a Middle Platonist and later Neoplatonist filter, mixing Greek pagan philosophy with the biblical concepts of God and Christ. These advocates point to what they see as similarities between Hellenistic philosophy and post-Apostolic Christianity, by examining the following factors:

  • Stuart G Hall (formerly Professor of Ecclesiastical History at King’s College, London) describes the subsequent process of philosophical/theological amalgamation in Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church(1991), where he writes:

    The apologists began to claim that Greek culture pointed to and was consummated in the Christian message, just as the Old Testament was. This process was done most thoroughly in the synthesis of Clement of Alexandria. It can be done in several ways. You can rake through Greek literature, and find (especially in the oldest seers and poets) references to ‘God’ which are more compatible with monotheism than with polytheism (so at length Athenagoras.) You can work out a common chronology between the legends of prehistoric (Homer) Greece and the biblical record (so Theophilus.) You can adapt a piece of pre-Christian Jewish apologetic, which claimed that Plato and other Greek philosophers got their best ideas indirectly from the teachings of Moses in the Bible, which was much earlier. This theory combines the advantage of making out the Greeks to be plagiarists (and therefore second-rate or criminal), while claiming that they support Christianity by their arguments at least some of the time. Especially this applied to the question of God.

  • The neo-Platonic trinities, such as that of the One, the Nous and the Soul, are not considered a trinity necessarily of consubstantial equals as in mainstream Christianity. However, the neo-Platonic trinity has the doctrine of emanation, or “eternal derivation”, a timeless procedure of generation having as a source the One and claimed to be paralleled with the generation of the light from the Sun. This was adopted by Origen and later on by Athanasius, and applied to the generation of the Son from the Father, because they believed that this analogy could be used to support the notion that the Father, as immutable, always had been a Father, and that the generation of the Son is therefore eternal and timeless.
  • The synthesis of Christianity with Platonic philosophy was further incorporated in the trinitarian formulas that appeared by the end of the 3rd century. “The Greek philosophical theology” was “developed during the Trinitarian controversies over the relationships among the persons of the Godhead”. Some assert that this incorporation was well known during the 3rd century, because the allegation of borrowing was raised by some disputants when the Nicene doctrine was being formalized and adopted by the bishops. For example, in the 4th century, Marcellus of Ancyra, who taught the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were one person (hypostasis), said in his On the Holy Church, 9:

    Now with the heresy of the Ariomaniacs, which has corrupted the Church of God … These then teach three hypostases, just as Valentinus the heresiarch first invented in the book entitled by him ‘On the Three Natures’. For he was the first to invent three hypostases and three persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he is discovered to have filched this from Hermes and Plato.”

In his Introduction to the 1964 book Meditations, the Anglican priest Maxwell Staniforth discussed the profound influence of Stoic philosophy on Christianity. In particular:

Again in the doctrine of the Trinity, the ecclesiastical conception of Father, Word, and Spirit finds its germ in the different Stoic names of the Divine Unity. Thus Seneca, writing of the supreme Power which shapes the universe, states, ‘This Power we sometimes call the All-ruling God, sometimes the incorporeal Wisdom, sometimes the holy Spirit, sometimes Destiny.’ The Church had only to reject the last of these terms to arrive at its own acceptable definition of the Divine Nature; while the further assertion ‘these three are One’, which the modern mind finds paradoxical, was no more than commonplace to those familiar with Stoic notions.

Christian groups with nontrinitarian positions

  • American Unitarian Conference
  • Arianism
  • Assemblies of Yahweh
  • Bethel Ministerial Association
  • Bible Students
  • Christadelphians
  • Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Scientists)
  • Church of the Blessed Hope (sometimes called “Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith”)
  • Doukhobors
  • Friends of Man
  • Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ)
  • Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses
  • La Luz del Mundo
  • Latter Day Saint movement
    • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church)
  • Members Church of God International
  • Molokan
  • Monarchianism
  • Muggletonianism
  • New Church
  • Many members of the Non-subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland
  • Oneness Pentecostals
  • Polish Brethren
  • Elias Hicks (Hicksite Quakers)
  • Samaritan Christians
  • Shakers
  • Socinianism
  • Swedenborgianism
  • The Way International
  • Two by Twos (sometimes called The Truth or Cooneyites)
  • Unification Church (Family Federation for World Peace and Unification)
  • Unitarian Christians
  • Unitarian Universalism
  • United Church of God
  • Yahweh’s Assembly in Messiah
  • Yahweh’s Assembly in Yahshua

People

  • Paul of Samosata, 269
  • Arius, 336, presbyter of Alexandria, major theologian of the doctrine of Arianism in 4th century. He opposed the Homoousian declarations of the Alexandrian Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, making him a primary topic of the First Council of Nicea in AD 325.
  • Eusebius of Nicomedia, 341, (Arian)
  • Constantius II, Byzantine Emperor, 361
  • Antipope Felix II, 365
  • Aëtius, 367
  • Ulfilas, Apostle to the Goths, 383
  • Priscillian, 385, considered first Christian to be executed for heresy
  • Ludwig Haetzer, 1529
  • Michael Servetus, 1553, burned at the stake in Geneva under John Calvin
  • Sebastian Castellio, 1563
  • Ferenc Dávid, 1579
  • Justus Velsius, c. 1581
  • Fausto Paolo Sozzini, 1604
  • John Biddle, 1662
  • Thomas Aikenhead, 1697, last person to be hanged for blasphemy in Britain
  • John Locke, 1704
  • Isaac Newton did not believe in trinitarianism as documented in a letter to a friend, now preserved in The New College Library in Oxford, UK, Manuscript 361(4), Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture (part 1: ff. 1–41). He listed “worshipping Christ as God” in a list of “Idolatria” in his theological notebook. However, he never made a public declaration of his antitrinitarian beliefs for fear of losing his position.
  • Elias Hicks 1742, Quaker
  • Sabellius, c. 220 (Modalist: the eponymous heresiarch of Sabellianism, or “monarchic modalism”)
  • Origen c. 230 (Ante-Nicene Father, subordinationist: considered the Son co-eternal with God, subject to the Father’s will, but not inferior in essence)
  • William Whiston, 1752, expelled from University of Cambridge in 1710 for Arianism; famous for translating Josephus
  • Jonathan Mayhew, 1766
  • Emanuel Swedenborg, 1772, provided the theology for Swedenborgianism
  • Joseph Priestley, 1804
  • Joseph Smith, 1805, monolatrist, founder of the Latter-day Saint movement (Mormonism)
  • Mary Baker Eddy, 1821, founder of Christian Science
  • William Ellery Channing, 1842
  • Robert Hibbert, 1849
  • John Thomas (Christadelphian), 1871
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1882
  • Robert Roberts (Christadelphian), 1898
  • Benjamin Wilson, 1900
  • James Martineau, 1900
  • Félix Manalo, 1914
  • Charles Taze Russell, 1916, founder of the Bible Student movement and Jehovah’s Witnesses, author of Millennial Dawn
  • Eliseo Soriano, 1947
  • William Branham, 1965
  • Herbert W. Armstrong, 1986, founder of the Worldwide Church of God, a Sabbatarian Christian Church, and was an advocate of the doctrine of Binitarianism.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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