Why The Trinity Was Accepted In Europe

Why The Trinity Was Accepted In Europe.

1.4 Why The Trinity Was Accepted

In my opinion, the Biblical evidence against the trinity is compelling. And yet the majority of professing Christians are trinitarian; and moreover, they stigmatize non-trinitarians as non-Christian, many claiming that non-trinitarians are automatically a ‘sect’. Clearly enough, neither the word ‘trinity’ nor the wording of the trinitarian formula were known to New Testament Christianity. In a sense, Jesus ‘became’ God to many Christians all because a group of bishops decided it was so. But why did this happen? And why was there so much angst to label those who didn’t accept the trinity as heretics? Having read around the history of the early centuries of Christianity, the following are some suggested reasons.

1. Accommodation To Paganism

There was a mixture of paganism and Christianity, to make the changeover from paganism to nominal Christianity less controversial and more painless. I’ve given some specific examples of this in a European context below. Many scholars have pointed out that the idea of a Divine figure coming to earth to redeem the faithful was a very common pagan myth in the Middle East of the first century (1). It’s easy to see how early Christians would’ve been tempted to claim that Christ was some form of pre-existent God in order to make their beliefs accommodate to the surrounding paganism- and it’s understandable that some would’ve been eager to misinterpret Bible passages to this end.

Barry Cunliffe(2) notes “the prevalence of tripilism in Celtic religion… The ‘power of three’ was frequently expressed in iconography, as, for example, in the three-faced stone head from Corleck, Cavan, in Ireland or the tricephalic deity depicted on the pot from Bavay in northern France, but it is also found as a recurring motif- the triskele- in Celtic art. The concept is made even more specific in the Romano-British and Gallo-Roman religion in the form of the Deae Matres or the Matronae– the three mother goddesses- who together form a unity representing strength, power and fertility. Another but less widespread female trinity are the Saluviae, who preside over springs… inscriptions to theLugoves in Switzerland and Spain may well refer to a triple form of Lugh. In the Insular literature of Ireland, tripilism is a recurring theme. The great goddess, the Morrigan in her plural form, the Morrigna, resolves into three: Morrigan, Badb, and Nemain. Brigit and Macha also occur as triads. It is tempting to wonder if the threefold division proposed by Lucan, of Esus, Teutates, and Taranis, is a further expression of Celtic tripilism”.

So it’s not surprising that the idea of God as a trinity was easily accepted in Europe- the one true God had been adapted to the pagan background culture, rather than Bible truth being allowed to define our beliefs. The more one searches, the more one finds evidence of what Cunliffe calls “tripilisms”, pagan godheads that occurred in three forms or persons. The “three legs of Mann” on the Isle of Mann, which symbol is also found on coins found in Italy and Asia Minor from before the time of Christ; the triple knot inscriptions [called the Triquetra] and the “Triskel” symbol, again a reference to some primitive form of ‘trinity’, found in inscriptions and art forms throughout Brittany, Ireland and Western Britain.

Photo: A small plaque of schist from Bath, England with three female figures representing the ‘three mothers’, a triad of deities. These triads of mother goddesses were common in the West of Britain in the early Roman period, probably reflecting an earlier Iron Age tradition. Original in the Roman Baths Museum, Bath UK.

Roman Influence

Around AD8, Ovid published his collection of poems called Metamorphoses. They are full of tales of how gods descended to earth, incarnated as men, and then went back to Heaven. Jupiter and Mercury were supposed to have come to earth, unrecognized as men, and were supposedly entertained by Baucis and Philemon. These ideas were common in the first century- hence when Paul and Barnabas did miracles (Acts 14:11), the people assumed they were Hermes and Zeus (the Greek equivalent of Jupiter and Mercury). Note, of course, how fervently Paul denied this! Cicero wrote to the governor of Asia and encouraged him to act as if he were one of the Divine men who supposedly came to earth from Heaven (Ad Quintem Fratrem I.i.7). Horace in B.C.30 addressed Caesar Augustus as Mercury incarnate, and wrote that the son of Mercury was to come down from Heaven and ‘expiate human guilt’ (Odes I.2). Vergil in 40 B.C. made a similar prophecy that “was later interpreted as a Messianic prophecy by Christians” (3). I find all this highly significant. The ideas of a pre-existent God coming to earth as man, as a saviour, expiating human guilt etc., were all pagan ideas. And it is these very ideas which were seized upon by Christians and later made respectable [in orthodox Christian terms] as the doctrine of the trinity. A hard question to trinitarians would be: ‘How do you explain the huge similarities between your beliefs and those of pagan Greece and Rome at the time of Jesus?’. This question hits the harder when the admission is finally forced that the New Testament itself is silent about the trinity, incarnation, God becoming man, personal pre-existence of Jesus etc. And the question acquires fatal force when it is demonstrated that the few New Testament passages used to shore up trinitarianism are in fact examples of the apostles quoting or alluding to the pagan myths in order to debunk them. I have exemplified that point frequently in these studies- see, e.g., my comments on Philippians 2.

Remember that the trinity was adopted at the Council of Nicea in AD325. This Council was called by Constantine after he decided he wished to turn the official religion of the Roman empire from paganism to Christianity. Not long before that Council, Christians had been cruelly persecuted. Some of the delegates at that Council even bore on their faces and in their bodies the marks of that persecution. The pagans had [falsely] accused the Christians of making Jesus into a God whom they worshipped. Pliny had reported how they “chant antiphonally a hymn to Christ as to a god” (4). In the pagan Roman world, only the Jews refused to worship other gods on the basis that there was only one true God. The fact the Christians did the same led to the perception that they too thought that there was only one God, just that they called Him ‘Christ’. The Jews likewise wrongly assumed that anyone claiming to be the Son of God was claiming to be God (Jn. 10:33-36; 19:7)- even though Jesus specifically corrected them over this! As often happens, the perceptions of a group by their enemies often come to define how the group perceive themselves. Constantine was a politician and a warrior. He wasn’t a Bible student, nor a theologian, in fact he wasn’t even a very serious Christian (5). Although he accepted Christianity, he said he didn’t want to be baptized because he wanted to continue in sin. He seems to have figured that Christianity was the right thing for the empire. So, Christianity, here we come. Constantine, and many others who jumped on the ‘Christian’ bandwagon, shared the perception of Christ which had existed in the pagan world which they had grown up in. And the pagan perception, as Pliny and many others make clear, was that Jesus was a kind of God. And so when Constantine presided over the dispute amongst the bishops at Nicea about who Jesus was, he naturally assumed that the ‘Jesus is God Himself’ party were in fact traditional Christians.

Notes

(1) Barry Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts (London: Penguin, 1999) p. 17
(2) Rudolph Bultmann, Theology Of The New Testament (New York: Scribner’s, 1965) Vol. 1 p. 166; F.B.Craddock, The Pre-Existence Of Christ In The New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 1968); M. Wiles, The Remaking Of Christian Doctrine (London: S.C.M., 1974) Chapter 3.

(3) Frances Young, in John Hick, ed., The Myth Of God Incarnate (London: S.C.M., 1977) p. 97.

(4) Pliny (the Younger), Epistles 10.96. English translation in A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrative Of The History of The Church To AD 337, ed. J. Stevenson (London: S.P.C.K., 1974) pp. 13-15.

(5) There’s strong historical evidence that Constantine was scarcely a Christian himself by the time of the Council of Nicea. The idea is commonly held that he saw a vision of Christ at the battle of Milvan Bridge in AD312 and then converted to Christianity in gratitude, especially as Christ supposedly told him to lead his soldiers with the sign of the cross. However, there is serious evidence against this. After the battle, he claimed that “The supreme deity” had helped him, and he placed “the heavenly sign of God” on his soldier’s shields. But historical sources dating from soon after the battle state that this sign was not the cross, but the chi-ro sign, or labarum- the emblem of the sun god. It was only many years later that Eusebius wrote a biography of Constantine, in which he claimed that this had actually been the sign of the cross. After the battle in AD312, Constantine erected a triumphal arch opposite the Colosseum in Rome to celebrate the victory- and covered it with reliefs of Mars, Jupiter, Hercules [the gods of war], and ascribed victory to the power of the Sun god. Depictions of the battle show no soldier with any cross on his shield! As late as AD320, Constantine’s coins represented him with the crown of the ‘Sol Invictus’, the Sun god cult. And was it co-incidence that he declared December 25th, the main festival of the ‘Sol Invictus’, as the birthday of Jesus? Further, his new capital, Constantinople, was committed to the care of the local protecting deities, Rhea and Tyche- Constantine built temples for them all over his new capital.

2. Genuine Intellectual Failure?

There was an element of genuine misinterpretation. As you read through the New Testament chronologically, it becomes apparent that the Lord Jesus is spoken of in ever more exalted language. For example, the term “son of man” is a favourite of the Gospel writers to describe the Lord Jesus. But it occurs only once in the later New Testament. Mark, the first Gospel, never calls Jesus “Lord”- but “Lord” is Paul’s most common title of Jesus some years later. John’s Gospel, clearly written after the other three, uses much more exalted language about the Lord Jesus than the earlier Gospels. The growth in perception of the greatness of Jesus is also perhaps reflected in the way that Revelation, the last inspired book of the New Testament, employs the most exalted language about Jesus. Both Paul and Peter show a progressive fondness in their choice of words for terms which exalt Jesus higher and higher. And presumably this trend continued after their death, as believers realized more and more that the carpenter from Nazareth had in fact been God’s Son, and is now the exalted King of Heaven and earth. The penny dropped that in fact “we can never exalt Christ too highly”, as Robert Roberts put it in the 19th century. But… and it’s a big but. The language of exaltation can reach a point where Jesus is no longer Jesus, but somehow God Himself. Further, it’s my observation that intellectual failure very often has an underlying psychological basis. To make Jesus God was one thing, but to accept the doctrine of three Gods in one, the trinity, was another. And I submit that this intellectual failure was rooted, even unconsciously, in a desire for an easier ride. It is after all extremely demanding to accept that a man, born into all our dysfunction, could be perfect; that from the larynx of a Palestinian Jew there could come forth the words of God Almighty. It’s a challenge, because we too are human; and if this was how far one of us could rise, above all the things that hold us down, that retard our growth towards the image of God Himself… then He is setting us an example so challenging that it reaches into the very core of our being, uncomfortably, inconveniently and even worryingly. To have a Jesus who was in fact not truly human, but just acting out, a Jesus who was really God and not man… this removes so much of the challenge of the real, human Christ.

– It has to be admitted that any attempt to use human language in order to somehow express the greatness of what the Lord Jesus has achieved, who He was and who He is, is somehow doomed to failure. I may break the rules of grammatical convention in my writings by writing the personal pronouns related to Jesus with a capital ‘H’ (“He… His… Him”), but this of course quite fails to express in language and under “the tyranny of words” all that I think of Him. I like to imagine that all genuine believers know something of my dilemma. As Robert Roberts said so well, “We cannot lift Christ too high”. Perhaps it was in this spirit that men began to speak of Jesus as “God”- the problem is that by ending up with the “Jesus=God” equation, we are doing violence to God’s word and also actually minimizing the colossal, unspeakable achievement of the human Jesus. The New Testament is full of very high adoration for the Lord Jesus. Seeing those words and phrases were chosen under the inspiration of God, His Father, we would be better advised to stick with them rather than try to invent our own terms and analogies in order to express His greatness. The structure of the original text of the prologue to John’s Gospel regarding the word, and also Phil. 2:9-11 regarding the exaltation of Jesus, are arranged in such a way that they appear to be hymns which were sung by the believers. Plainly the Younger (Epistle 10.96.7) writes of the Christians “singing hymns to Christ as to a god”; surely he had in mind these passages. It can often be that we adopt the very position falsely ascribed to us by our critics; and perhaps that’s what happened here. The critics of early Christianity wrongly claimed that the Christians thought of Jesus as God; and this eventually became their position for the most part, although it was not originally.

– It could be that some read [or heard of] the Biblical descriptions of Christ in glory now and assumed that this is how He must have been whilst on earth- and thus artists depict Jesus praying in Gethsemane which the kind of halo of glory around His head which we might assume He now has. That, however, is a really quite inexcusable misuse of the Bible text, taking a few verses and images from one part of it with no respect at all for the others. I’m being generous by categorizing this kind of thing under ‘intellectual failure’. For the Bible is God’s word to us, carefully and amazingly preserved by Him… and to treat it like this is rather like my hearing your earnest and passionate explanation of something to me, but my only bothering to listen to a couple of phrases, and then using these to totally misrepresent to others your whole message to me.

– Suetonius records that there were frequent “disturbances caused by Chrestus among the Jews of Rome” (Claudius 25.4). ‘Chrestus’ meant ‘slave’- this was how Jesus was known, as the slave who was King. But those ideas didn’t fit together well in the Mediterranean world, where the image of a humble King was somehow a contradiction in terms. For me, the significance of Suetonius’ record is that the Lord Jesus was initially popularly known as Chrestus, the glorified slave, rather than Christos, the Christ. Of course it’s quite Biblical and correct to call Jesus “the Christ”; but in early Christianity He was glorified for His humility, as a slave of all who was thereby exalted. The trinity seems to have partly arisen from a forgetting of this factor in His exaltation, and focusing instead solely on the titles of His glorification until the primitive and incorrect equation “Jesus=God” was reached.

– Christianity was and is radically counter-cultural. The very terms used by the Roman empire regarding its Kingdom and Caesars are all applied to the Kingdom of God and to His Son. I have exemplified this at length elsewhere (1). Thus ‘Caesar is Lord’ became ‘Jesus is Lord’ in early Christianity (2). I suggest that there may have been an element of genuine intellectual failure amongst some illiterate early Christians, who noticed this feature of Christianity, and wrongly inferred from it that therefore all that is true or claimed to be true of Caesar must therefore be true of Jesus- when the fact they shared the same verbal titles doesn’t imply that at all. Thus when it was claimed that Caesar was a pre-existent God who on death returned to Heaven, those illiterate [and other] folks may have been tempted to assume that this was therefore also true of Jesus. But maybe I’m being too generous here. The early Christians virulently rejected the Emperor-cult; but as Christianity came to merge with the Roman world, it became modelled on the Emperor-cult in a way which the earliest Christians would’ve fiercely rejected. By the Middle Ages, icons were depicting Christ appearing like the Emperor, and God rendered as the Pope- Van Eyck and Boticelli presented God the Father as wearing the same triple crown which the Pope wore (3). In this we see the full mixture of apostate church and worldly state, and the Trinity was just a convenient means to that end.

On balance, whilst I accept the Trinity may have arisen from an element of genuine intellectual failure, being honestly mistaken in Bible study, it seems to me that this doesn’t really excuse the huge and basic ignorance of God’s word as the source of truth about Himself and His Son. It seems that the early church ‘fathers’ began desperately grabbing any Bible verse which would justify their position, as we have commented so many times. Thus commenting on the Hebrew and Septuagint of Mic. 5:2, James Dunn comments: “In neither instance does the Hebrew suggest the idea of pre-existence… it was not until Justin took it up in the middle of the second century AD that it began to be used as a prophecy of Christ’s pre-existence” (4). In this observation, which Dunn documents at length, we see how once the ideas of Christ being God and pre-existing were accepted and assumed, the church ‘fathers’ started casting around for Biblical evidence to support those positions. This, sadly, is typical of the inductive reasoning that has plagued Christian thinking. An idea is seized upon, often because it is acceptable to the surrounding world, and then Bible verses are appended to it, regardless of their context.

Notes

(1) See ‘The Objections To Christianity’ in my Bible Lives section 16-4.

(2) Adolf Deissmann gives very many examples of how the titles of Caesar used in the Imperial Cult were applied to Jesus- see his Light From The Ancient East (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1927) pp. 342 ff.

(3) See F.E. Hulme, Symbolism In Christian Art (Blandford: Blandford Press, 1976) pp. 43 ff.

(4) James Dunn, Christology In The Making (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980) p. 71. A similar conclusion concerning Mic. 5:2 is to be found in J. Klausner, The Messianic Idea In Israel (New York: Macmillan, 1956) p. 77.

3. The Psychological Attraction Of A Non-Human Jesus

I would suggest that every false understanding of the Bible, every wrong doctrine, has some sort of psychological basis to it; and that often, this involves an excuse for flunking the challenge to believe God’s word. To believe that Jesus of Nazareth was human, yet never sinned, died, and then rose again… demands a lot of faith. I recall discussing the nature of the Lord Jesus for many hours, late into the night in an apartment in South London. By about 2 a.m., we seem to have got to the crux of the issues. My friend said something to the effect, with a genuine sense of wonder, ‘If you’re asking me to believe that a man could live and never sin, die and then resurrect… I can’t believe that of a man. I just… don’t have the faith. I have to believe He was God to have done all that’. I left soon afterwards, and drove across the silent, sleeping suburbs of my hometown feeling that at last I had understood why there is so much belief in the Trinity, ‘Jesus = God’ idea. Quite simply, it demands much less faith. And to believe the simple Biblical account does actually require more faith than appears. To believe that 2000 years ago, on a day in April, on a Friday afternoon, on a hill outside Jerusalem, a perfect man died… and after three days, the graveclothes stirred, a young man walked out into the early morning mist, with the lights of Jerusalem shimmering in the distance… that 40 days later He ascended up vertically into the sky and somehow got taken to Heaven, the very centre of the cosmos… yes, it demands faith to grasp the personal, actual, concrete, historical reality of it all. It’s so much easier to shrug it all off, to walk away from the challenge of faith, by saying that yeah, actually, He was God. The early Christians must likewise have struggled with the questions- how could a man have done all this? How could this be true of a man? Could one of us really have pulledthis off? And so they took the easy way out, flunked the issue, by deciding that Jesus must’ve been God. Likewise there is the challenge of the fact that Jesus is explained in Scripture as our representative; but that requires a lot of faith from us, and so Christianity generally has ditched that demand and replaced it with a pagan notion of substitution. Yet the Lord Jesus set us a pattern- humiliation and suffering, followed by glorification. Yet the common conception of Jesus gets this all the wrong way around- pre-existent glory in Heaven followed by humiliation, then a return to glory. But the Bible clearly teaches that the glory of the Lord Jesus was earned, it was His reward, and we with all our hearts say “Worthy the lamb that was slain!” to receive that glory- knowing that we too have embarked upon a similar path to glory, with every experience of humiliation in this life understood in that context.

This psychological discomfort with the human Jesus is reflected by the way in which there’s always vociferous reaction against any Bible translation which has Jesus speaking in ordinary human language (e.g. that of Andy Gauss, The Unvarnished New Testament), and against any movie or piece of writing which shows the Lord Jesus experiencing the kinds of human feelings and passions which we do. The human desire to believe in a god rather than a man is demonstrated in Israel’s attitude to Moses. They complained about “this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt”; and therefore made the golden calf, proclaiming: “These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 32:1,4). Note in passing how they created one calf, but worshipped it as gods plural. They committed the trinity fallacy of many centuries later. They couldn’t handle a saviour who was human, like them, and so they decided that a god had been their saviour, who existed as a plurality, gods, within a unity, i.e. the golden calf.

The essence of Christianity is to be as it were in a personality cult behind the person of the Lord Jesus. It’s all about reflecting daily upon Him, asking “What would Jesus do?” as we face the myriad decisions which make up daily life. Yet this is hard to do; we find it almost impossible to maintain daily focus upon the Jesus who is revealed in the Gospels. The tendency always is to let our mind stray onto more abstract and less personally demanding things; and it has been observed that as the Church as a whole moved away from focus upon the real, human Jesus of the Gospels, so they became increasingly absorbed in speculation about His supposed previous life in Heaven.

4. Jewish Influence

The true Christian believer has ever been under pressure from the world. Paul wrote words of eternal relevance when he asked that we not allow the world to press us into its’ mould, but rather allow Christ to transform us. The acceptance of the trinity was a result of the world pressurizing the church. The Roman and Jewish worlds which surrounded the Christians had a way of divinizing human figures. If you concluded a man had been a hero, then you applied Divine language to him- a form of what the Greeks had called apotheosis. This is why some of the Rabbinic commentary on men like Moses and Elijah use God-like language about them, although clearly the intention was not to make them equal to the one and only God of Israel whom they believed in. Yet the Greek and Western world have unfortnately read the Hebraic Biblical documents through their own worldviews, and have missed the fact that Hebrew terms and approaches are quite different to their own.

There’s no lack of evidence that Christians did this with regards to the language used about Jesus, indeed there are examples of it in the New Testament. And it has also been observed that some of the exalted Jewish language used about Moses- e.g. “the one for and on account of whom the world was created”- was purposefully appropriated by Paul and applied to Jesus (1). Such glorified figures were also spoken of with the language of pre-existence, as if they had existed from the beginning of creation, even though that wasn’t literally the case. They were “ascribed a prior, heavenly status or existence, however that was understood” (2). But as Christianity generally turned against the Jews, as Jewish Christians were thrown out of the church or returned to the synagogues, the actual human roots of Jesus were overlooked. The Jewish background to the language of exaltation used about Him was no longer appreciated. Instead, Christ remained in the minds of many Christians just with the Divine titles attached to Him; and so they ended up concluding that He was God Himself. Why? Because they overlooked the Jewish origins of Jesus, and the Old Testament background to Him; and because they preferred to stick with forms of wording which were comfortable and familiar to them, rather that searching out the meaning behind those words. And today, nothing much has changed. Still Christians remain almost wilfully ignorant of the basic principle of ‘God manifestation’ which is found throughout Scripture, whereby Divine language can be used of a person without making them God Himself.

Vincent Taylor analyzes Paul’s hymn of praise to the Lord Jesus in Phil. 2:6-11 and concludes that it is an adaptation of a Jewish hymn which spoke of “the appearance of the Heavenly Man on earth” (3). Paul was writing under inspiration, but it seems he purposefully adapted a Jewish hymn and applied it to Jesus- to indicate the status which the Lord Jesus should truly be ascribed. Col. 1:15-20, another poetic fragment which is likewise misunderstood by those seeking to justify the false idea of a personal pre-existence of the Lord, has also been identified as a Jewish hymn which Paul modified (4). We must remember that Paul was inspired by God to answer the claims of false teachers; and he was doing so by using and re-interpreting the terms which they used. Nearly all the titles of Christ used in the letter to the Hebrews are taken from Philo or the Jewish book of Wisdom (5). The writer to the Hebrews is seeking to apply them in their correct and true sense to the Lord Jesus. This explains why some titles are used which can easily be misunderstood by those not appreciating this background. For example, Philo speaks of “the impress of God’s seal”, and Hebrews applies this to the Lord Jesus. The phrase has been misinterpreted by trinitarians as meaning that Jesus is therefore God; but this wasn’t at all the idea behind the title in Philo’s writings, and neither was it when the letter to the Hebrews took up the phrase and applied it to Jesus. This sort of thing goes on far more often than we might think in the Bible- existing theological ideas are re-cast and re-presented in their correct light, especially with reference to the Lord Jesus. Arthur Gibson notes that “there is an important second level within religious language: it is a reflection upon, a criticism of, a correction of, or a more general formulation of, expressions which previously occur” (6). He even shows that the very Names ‘Yahweh’ and ‘El’ were an allusion to earlier contemporary gods of a similar name and meaning- but the only true God, Yahweh, the El of Israel, alludes to these false notions and presents them as applying solely to Himself.

Jewish Myths Deconstructed

In my study of the historical development of the common Christian understanding of Satan, I found that Jewish myths played a particularly strong role in influencing the early Christian positions- once Christianity started to depart from a purely Biblical approach (7). The same appears true for some elements of the false doctrines which led to the development of the Trinity. The apostate Jewish Book of Enoch held that the “Son of man” figure personally pre-existed (1 Enoch 48:2-6; 62:6,7). The idea of personal pre-existence was held by the Samaritans, who believed that Moses personally pre-existed (8). Indeed the idea of a pre-existent man, called by German theologians the urmensch, was likely picked up by the Jews from the Persians during the captivity. It became attractive, therefore, that Christians who believed that Jesus was the prophet greater than Moses, that He was the “Son of man”, yet who were influenced by Jewish thinking, would therefore come to assume that Jesus also personally pre-existed. And yet they drew that conclusion in defiance of basic Biblical teaching to the opposite. Paul often appears to allude to these Jewish ideas, which he would’ve been familiar with, in order to deconstruct and correct them. Thus when he compares Jesus and Adam by saying: “The first man is of the earth, the second man is from heaven” (1 Cor. 15:45-47), he is alluding to the idea of Philo that there was an earthly and heavenly man; and one of the Nag Hammadi documents On The Origin Of The World claims that “the first Adam of the light is spiritual… the second Adam is soul-endowed” (9). Paul’s point is that the “second Adam” is the now-exalted Lord Jesus in Heaven, and not some pre-existent being. Adam was “a type of him who was to come” (Rom. 5:14); the one who brought sin, whereas Christ brought salvation. Paul was alluding to and correcting the false ideas- hence he at times appears to use language which hints of pre-existence. But reading his writings in context show that he held no such idea, and was certainly not advocating the truth of those myths and documents he alluded to.

The natural human desire to downplay our own sin, and that of our race, led Judaism to misinterpret the fall of Adam. They ended up calling Adam “the Heavenly man” and believing that he was somehow alive and would be re-incarnated in the Messiah. Philo, the great Jewish philosopher of Alexandria, popularized this view. In The Real Devil I comment how this kind of corrupt Judaism was partly responsible for Christianity’s adoption of pagan notions of the Devil. But the same observation holds true in seeking to explain how early Christianity also became corrupted in its understanding of Messiah-Jesus. Philo argued that there were two “Adams” referred to in Genesis (based on his failure to reconcile Gen. 1:27 with Gen. 2:2). Paul was fully aware of these false ideas, and specifically alludes to them when explaining how “the first Adam” was the historical Adam we meet in Genesis; and the “second Adam” is a term only applicable to the Lord Jesus Christ after His resurrection.

Martin Hengel suggests that Christians attempted to answer the Jewish ideas of pre-existent Torah, Wisdom and Logos by developing the idea that Jesus pre-existed, as a kind of answer to their claims (10). This would indicate that the Christians simply sought to make their Jesus attractive to the surrounding world, paying more attention to justifying their beliefs and silencing other alternatives than to simply proclaiming the Biblical Christ. And so many have repeated that error over history. Origen’s reply to Celsus, a critic of Christianity, reveals how a wrong understanding of Jesus developed in response to the criticisms received by Christianity. Celsus claimed that the Christians were making Jesus out to be a God by worshipping Him (as quoted by Origen in Contra Celsum 8.12). The response should’ve been that worship of Jesus doesn’t require Him to be one and the same person as God- for the same Greek words used in the New Testament about ‘worship’ of Jesus are used about worship of men. But instead, Origen took the path of justifying the idea that Jesus is God.

C.H. Dodd throughout chapter 3 of his classic The Interpretation Of The Fourth Gospel gives ample reason to believe his thesis that John’s Gospel was written [partly] in order to deconstruct the popular teachings of Philo in the first century- and there are therefore many allusions to his writings. Thus John records how in vain the Jews searched the Scriptures, because in them they thought they had eternal life (Jn. 5:39)- when this is the very thing that Philo claimed to do. This approach helps us understand why, for example, the prologue to John is written in the way it is, full of allusion to Jewish ideas about the logos. How John writes is only confusing to us because we’re not reading his inspired words against the immediate background in which they were written- which included the very popular false teachings of Philo about the logos. Thus Philo claimed that God had two sons, sent the younger into the world, and the elder, the logos, remained “by Him”- whereas John’s prologue shows that the logos was an abstract idea, whichwas sent into the world in the form of God’s one and only Son, the Lord Jesus. Dodd shows how constantly John is referring to Philo- e.g. Philo denied any possibility of spiritual rebirth, whereas John (Jn. 3:3-5) stresses how needful and possible it is in Christ. The very abstract views of Philo are challenged when John comments that the logoshas become flesh- real and actual, handled and seen, in the person of the Lord Jesus. Philo claimed that the logos was an Angel- whereas John effectively denies this by saying that the logos became a real and actual human being. Those Christians who claim Jesus was an Angel- and they range from Jehovah’s Witnesses to those who claim Jesus appeared as an Old Testament Angel- should all stand corrected by John’s argument against Philo. In chapter 11 of his book, Dodd makes the observation that there was a tension between Jewish monotheism, and the many gods of Greek mythology. He shows how these ideas were reconciled by bringing the gods into some kind of family relationship with each- thus Hermes and Apollo became sons of Zeus, and all were seen as emanations of the one God. This is highly significant for any study of how the Trinity came into existence- the stage was set for the idea of a small family of gods to develop, all supposedly emanations of one God.

The Samaritans

I wish to share a theory which to me is significant in explaining the way that Jewish conceptions came to influence Christian misunderstanding of Jesus. My suggestion is that the Samaritan Christians came to import into their theology a view of Jesus which was based upon the mixture of Jewish-pagan ideas which they had held before their conversion to Christianity. The letter to the Hebrews is clearly intended as a rebuttal of wrong understandings of the Lord Jesus, and as noted above, the language used about Jesus in Heb. 1 clearly alludes to incipient Gnostic ideas of a pre-existent redeemer who was in some ways ‘God’- and the writer is clearly debunking those ideas. I speak more about this in The Divine Side Of Jesus. My suggestion is that Hebrews was written specifically to Samaritan Christians. For starters, it was Samaritans who called themselves Hebraioi; the Jews tended not to use that term (11). And the reasoning of Hebrews is drawn all from the tabernacle rather than the Jerusalem temple, which the Samaritans didn’t accept. The list of the faithful in Heb. 11 is drawn only from the Pentateuch and Joshua, which were the only Old Testament books accepted by the Samaritans. Justin (First Apology 26) and Irenaeus (Against Heresies i.23.1-4) both claimed that it was the Samaritans who were the first Gnostics. John Macdonald in his extensive work The Theology Of The Samaritans demonstrates that the Samaritans actually believed in a binity, two Gods, called “The true one”, and “The Glory” (12). They reasoned that the two accounts of creation in Genesis were the work of these two beings, and that Moses in Ex. 34 met two beings each called “Yahweh”. And yet the Samaritans were monotheists. They justified their belief in only one God much as trinitarians do today- they argued that the one God was incarnated in the other one, so that there was one God in a kind of binity (13). And so in my opinion this group of Hebrew Christians were likely to revert to their original beliefs, and make Jesus out to be an incarnated God. And it is to them that the letter to the Hebrews is written. It’s significant that John’s Gospel pays attention to the theme of the Samaritans, and John 1 is full of allusions to Genesis 1 and Exodus 34- the two passages which, as shown above, the Samaritans used as the basis for their belief in a binity of Gods. It’s perhaps noteworthy that Paul mentions false apostles in Corinth claiming to be ‘Hebrews’ rather than Ioudaioi, Jews (2 Cor. 11:22). Significantly, a “Synagogue of the Hebrews”, i.e. Samaritans, has been uncovered at Corinth (14). Harry Whittaker and myself have offered independent studies showing the existence of a ‘Jewish plot’ against Paul’s work throughout the first century; perhaps that thesis needs to be honed a little and applied specifically to this group of Samaritan Christians (15).

The significance of all this in our present context is that Paul and the apostolic writers of the New Testament were already up against the idea that Jesus = God. Michael Goulder sums it up: “There is evidence that these ‘Hebrew’ missionaries introduced new doctrines to the … churches in… the teaching that Jesus was God become man [and] a glorifying and dehumanizing of his earthly life” (16). The apostles dealt with these ideas by alluding to and deconstructing the Gnostic and Samaritan ideas which were at the root of them- and that, in my view, is the basis of many of the passages which are seized upon by trinitarians in support of their idea, whilst of course ignoring the mass of Bible teaching to the contrary. As I have shown elsewhere, passages such as John 1 and Hebrews 1 are in fact full of emphasis upon the fact that Jesus is not God Himself; but their allusion to the prevailing views and literature leads to their using phrases from that literature which are seized upon by careless Bible readers as evidence for their preconceived idea of a trinity.

The Jewish View Of Angels

The Jewish obsession with Angels influenced the early Christians in the area of Christology [i.e. theories about Christ], just as it did on the topic of the Devil. Chapters like Hebrews 1 and Colossians 2 deal with this in detail, stressing that Jesus was not an Angel [something which the Watchtower movement of today need to consider more fully]. The Jewish Testament Of Daniel 6.1 exhorts Israel to “draw near unto God and unto the angel that intercedeth for you, for he is a mediator between God and man”. This is alluded to by Paul in 1 Tim. 2:5, when he underlines that to us there is “one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus”. Clearly Paul is alluding to the apostate Jewish angelology and correcting it- as in Hebrews 2, the point is laboured that Jesus was a man and not an Angel, and He is the only mediator. 3 Enoch [also known as The Hebrew Book Of Enoch] spoke much of an Angel called Metatron, “the prince of the presence”, “the lesser Yahweh”, who appeared as Yahweh to Moses in Ex. 23:21, sat on “the throne of glory” etc (3 Enoch 10-14). Early Jewish Christianity appears to have mistakenly reapplied these ideas to Jesus, resulting in the idea the first of all Jesus was an Angel, and then coming to full term in the doctrine of the Trinity. J. Danielou devotes the whole fourth chapter of his survey of the development of Christian doctrine to the study of how Jewish views of Angels actually led on to the Trinity (17). Paul’s style was not to baldly state that everything believed in by the Jews was wrong; he recognized that the very nature of apostasy is in the mixing of the true and the false. He speaks of how Jesus indeed has been exalted and sits at God’s right hand (Rom. 8:34) and has been given God’s Name, as the Angel was in Exodus (Phil. 2:9-11); but his whole point is that whilst that may indeed be common ground with the Jewish ideas, the truth is that Jesus is not an Angel, came into physical existence through Mary (“made of a woman”, Gal. 4:4), and as the begotten Son of God has been exalted far higher than any Angel. The language of Heb. 1:3-6 clearly alludes to the Metatron myth and deconstructs it in very clear terms. For Jesus is described as “being the effulgence of his glory, and the very image of his substance, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had made purification of sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high; having become by so much better than the angels, as he hath inherited a more excellent name than they. For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, This day have I begotten thee? and again, I will be to him a Father, And he shall be to me a Son? And when he again bringeth in the firstborn into the world he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him”.

James Dunn quotes Tertullian, Justin, Epiphanius and Clement as all believing that the Lord Jesus was an Angel- “so too Jewish Christians of the second and third centuries specifically affirmed that Christ was an angel or archangel… Justin’s identification of the angel of Yahweh with the [supposedly] pre-existent Christ” (18). It was this Jewish obsession with Angels, and the desire to make Jesus understandable as an Angel, which led to the idea that He personally pre-existed and was not quite human. And hence the specific and repeated emphasis of the New Testament that the Lord was not an Angel but because He was a man and not an Angel He has been exalted far above Angels (Phil. 2:9-11; Col. 1:16; 2:8-10; Heb. 1; 1 Pet. 1:12; 3:22; Rev. 5:11-14). It’s the same with the idea of Melchizedek, whom the Qumran community and writings understood as an Archangel. The commentary upon Melchizedek in Hebrews stresses that he was a man (“consider how great this man was…”, Heb. 7:4)- therefore not an Angel. He was atype of Christ, and yet not Christ. It would appear that the commentary upon Melchizedek in Hebrews is actually full of indirect references to the Qumran claims about Melchizedek being an Angel and somehow being the Messiah. Sadly, too many trinitarians today have made the same mistake as the Jews- arguing that Melchizedek was somehow Jesus personally. We examine that view in yet more detail in section 1-13. The Jews of Qumran were quite obsessed with Angels- they also suggested that Gabriel was somehow the pre-existent Messiah. Bearing that in mind, it would appear that the descriptions of the Angel Gabriel announcing the conception and birth of Jesus are almost purposefully designed to show that Gabriel and Jesus are not the same but are two quite different persons (Mt. 1:20,24; 2:13,19; Lk. 1:11,19,26-38; 2:9).

The Jews believed that the shekinah, the physical light of glory associated with the tabernacle, was somehow a personal being associated with a Messiah figure. Paul deconstructs this idea in 2 Cor. 3:17,18, where he says that the shekinah seen on the face of Moses was a fading glory of the Old Covenant, having been made insignificant by the glory of Christ. Thus Paul is attacking the common Jewish idea by saying that the Lord Jesus was not the shekinah but is superior to it. Indeed, he so often makes the same point by stressing that the glorification of the Lord Jesus was at His resurrection and ascension. He became “the Lord of glory” by what He suffered, and received this glorification at the resurrection and ascension. If the Lord’s glory was somehow pre-existent before that, the wonder and personal significance of the resurrection for Jesus is somehow lost sight of; the idea of suffering and then being glorified, as a pattern for us, is quite lost sight of. And yet this was the repeated theme of Paul’s inspired writing. Note in passing how when describing the shekinah cloud in which the Angel dwelt, Paul comments that the cloud was mere water, for at the Red Sea it played a part in symbolizing Israel’s baptism “into Moses in the cloud [water above them] and in the sea [water on both sides of them]” (1 Cor. 10:2). Moses and not the shekinah cloud was the type of Christ. Yet Justin Martyr and many other careless Bible readers, coming to Scripture in order to seek justification for their preconceived trinitarian ideas, have interpreted the cloud as being the Angel which was supposedly Jesus. Hebrews 1 clarifies that God spoke in Old Testament times through Angels and prophets- but notthrough His Son. This He began to do in the ministry of the human Jesus. That path of thought alone should remove all possibility that any Old Testament Angel was in fact the Lord Jesus.

The Jewish Background To The Logos

Much has been made of the similarities between Jn. 1:1-3 and the ‘Wisdom’ literature of the Jews. Judaism believed in a number of intermediaries who interceded between God and Israel- Wisdom, the Shekinah [glory], the Logos / word. The Torah [law] had become so elevated and personified that it was spoken of almost as a separate ‘God’ (19). John and Paul are picking up these terms and explaining their true meaning- Jesus is the glory [shekinah] of God, He alone is the one and only true mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). By stressing that the mediator was “the man Christ Jesus”, Paul is also taking a swipe at the Greek idea of a superhuman mediator between the world and the world’s creator, sometimes called a “second God”. And when it comes to the Logos, John is explaining in his prologue that the theme of all God’s word in the Old Testament was ultimately about Jesus, and that ‘word’ became flesh in a person, i.e. Jesus, in His life and death. Understanding this background helps us understand why John appears to use very ‘Divine’ language about the logos. He’s doing so because he’s alluding to the mistaken beliefs of Judaism and showing where the truth really lies in Jesus.

Jewish Influence On The ‘Pre-existence’ Idea

The false notion that the Lord Jesus literally pre-existed and was then somehow incarnated, or re-incarnated, was a pagan idea that had become popular in Judaism around the time of Christ. In fact the road to the Trinity began with Justin and other ‘church fathers’ coming to teach that Jesus personally pre-existed- even though they initially denied that He was God Himself. The Qumran sect, some of whose followers became the first Christians, believed that the “Teacher of Righteousness” pre-existed as the former prophets and would be an incarnation of them. This explains why they thought Messiah had previously been incarnated as Moses, Elijah and the prophets. In this lies the significance of the account in Mt. 16:14-18. Jesus enquires who the people think He is- and the disciples answer that the popular view is that Jesus of Nazareth is Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets reincarnated. But this was exactly who first century Judaism thought Messiah would be (20). So the crowd view was indeed that Jesus was Messiah- but “Messiah” as they understood Messiah would be. The significance of the incident lies in Peter’s affirmation that Jesus, whom he accepted as Messiah, was not a re-incarnation of a pre-existent prophet but was the begotten Son of God. Note in passing that the false doctrine of pre-existence is connected to the pagan myth of incarnation and re-incarnation. If, for example, Jesus really was existing in Old Testament times, then somehow He would have had to have been re-incarnated in Mary’s womb.

Peter’s rejection of these ideas and declaration instead that Jesus is the Son of God gave the Lord Jesus great joy; and so too will our faith in Him as the actual Son of God, not a pre-existent being somehow incarnated inside Mary. The Jesus who to this day remembers early childhood with Mary knows full well that He didn’t pre-exist before that. We too, you and me, know how frustrating it is to have our origins and essential being misunderstood, and to hear others insisting that their false images of us are in fact true. It may not mean that we break all relationship with them just because of this- but it is surely so that our correct understanding of the nature and essence of Jesus rejoices His heart and draws us closer in our relationship. This is my perspective on the issue of “So how important is it to reject the idea of a pre-existent Jesus?”. I cannot speak for His ultimate judgment of men and women, although I do know that many will call Him “Lord, Lord” at the last day and realize they never knew Him and He never knew them (Mt. 7:22,23). All I can say is that correct understanding of our Lord’s nature will deeply enrich our relationship with Him- and this is what the daily essence of following Him is all about.

We know from Acts 8 that people from Samaria formed a significant part of the earliest Christian community. Yet all converts are prone to return to their former beliefs in some ways at some times. The Samaritan view of Messiah was likewise that he would be the re-incarnation of a prophet, specifically Moses (Jn. 4:19,25). It therefore seems likely that the idea of a pre-existent Christ / Messiah developed as a result of the early Jewish and Samaritan converts returning to their previous conceptions of Messiah. For these were less taxing to their faith than the radical idea that an illiterate Jewish teenager called Marryam in some dumb Galileean village actually conceived a baby direct from God Almighty. Uninspired documents such as the Preaching Of Peter and the Gospel Of The Hebrews also make the false connection between Jesus and a re-incarnated Moses, Elijah etc. Clearly enough, the idea of a pre-existent, incarnated Jesus had its roots in paganism and apostate Judaism. The descriptions of Jesus as a “man”, a human being, have little meaning if in fact He pre-existed as God before that for millions of years. The descriptions of Him as “begotten” (passive of gennan in Mt. 1:16,20) make no suggestion of pre-existence at all. And the words of the Lord Jesus and His general behaviour would have to be read as all being purposefully deceptive, if in fact He was really a pre-existent god. There is no hint of any belief in a pre-existent Jesus until the writings of Justin Martyr in the second century- and he only develops the idea in his dialogue with Trypho the Jew. The Biblical accounts of the Lord’s conception and birth just flatly contradict the idea of pre-existence. This contradiction leads trinitarians into the most impossible statements. Take Kenneth Wuest, leading Evangelical and trinitarian: “Jesus proceeded by eternal generation as the Son of God from the Father in a birth that never took place because it always was” (21). This is meaningless verbiage- all necessitated by a desire to accept the Trinity tradition above God’s word. And Wuest makes that incredible statement in a book entitled “Great truths to live by”. Nobody can live a victorious spiritual life on the basis of such ‘truths’.

Time and again we have to remind ourselves that in reading the Bible, we are reading literature which was relevant to the time in which it was written, and which is inevitably going to freely use the current terminology without as it were giving footnoted explanations for 21st century readers. The whole language of pre-existence in Heaven must be understood against the Jewish background in which it was first used in the Biblical writings. “When the Jew wished to designate something as predestined, he spoke of it as already ‘existing’ in heaven” (22). Moses (especially in The Testament Of Moses 1:13,14), the Torah etc. are all spoken of in this sense in Jewish writings of the time. “Attribution of preexistence indicates religious importance of the highest order. Rabbinic theology speaks of the Law, of God’s throne of glory, of Israel… as things which were already present with [God] before the creation of the world. The same is also true of the Messiah… in Pesikta Rabbati 152b it is said that “from the beginning of the creation of the world the King Messiah was born, for he came up in the thought of God before the world was created”. This means that from all eternity it was the will of God that the Messiah should come into existence, and should do his work in the world to fulfill God’s eternal saving purpose” (23). We must not read the New Testament through Greek / Western eyes, but rather try to understand it against its original Jewish / Hebrew background of thought. It’s a failure to do this which has given rise to trinitarianism and its associated misconceptions. Thus when we read of Jesus being “with” God, the Greek / Western mind can assume this means sitting literally together with Him. But time and again in the Hebrew Bible, the idea of being “with” someone means [according to the Brown, Driver and Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, p. 768] to “be in one’s consciousness, whether of knowledge, memory or purpose”. Thus Job speaks of how what God plans to do to him is “with God”, i.e. in His purpose (Job 23:14); David is spoken of as having the idea about building a temple “with” him (1 Kings 8:17; 2 Chron. 6:7)- and there are multiple other examples (Num. 14:24; 1 Kings 11:11; 1 Chron. 28:12; Job 10:13; 15:9; 23:10; 27:11; Ps. 50:11; 73:23). It is this refusal to read the Bible within its own Hebraic context which has led to so much misunderstanding, and adopting of doctrines and positions which simply don’t stand up to closer Biblical scrutiny.

The whole idea of a human being God Himself, or of personal pre-existence, are all Greek / Hellenistic ideas, and not Hebrew ones. “When the Jew said something was “predestined”, he thought of it as already “existing” in a higher sphere of life… this typically Jewish conception of predestination may be distinguished from the Greek idea of preexistence by the predominance of the thought of “preexistence” in the Divine purpose” (24). The language of Jn. 1:1-3 is all about this- the logos preexisting in God’s purpose. Significantly, the idea of ‘apocalypse’ alludes to this Jewish idea of predestined things ‘existing’ in Heaven with God; for ‘apocalypse’ means literally an unveiling, a revealing of what is [in Heaven]. In this sense the believer at the resurrection will receive what was already laid up in store for him or her in Heaven (2 Cor. 5:1; Col. 1:5; Mt. 25:34). Because of this, Hebrew can use past tenses to speak of that which is future (e.g. Is. 5:13; 9:2,6,12; 10:28; 28:16; 34:2; Gen. 15:18 cp. Acts 7:5). Things can thus “be” before they are created: “They were and were created” (Rev. 4:11). And thus when the Lord Jesus speaks of the glory which He had with God from the beginning (Jn. 17:5), there is no suggestion there that He therefore existed in glory from the beginning. He didn’t ask for that glory to be restored to Him, as trinitarianism demands; instead He asked that the glory which He already had in the Divine purpose, be given to Him. Significantly, there is a Greek word which specifically refers to personal, literal pre-existence: pro-uparchon– and it’s never used about the Lord Jesus.

The Jewish View Of Adam

There was a first century Jewish speculation that Adam would be re-incarnated as Messiah. Paul’s references to Adam and Christ in Rom. 5:12-21 and 1 Cor. 15:45-47 are very careful to debunk that idea. Paul emphasized that no, Adam and Jesus are different, Jesus is superior to Adam, achieved what Adam didn’t, whilst all the same being “son of man”. And this emphasis was effectively a denial by Paul that Jesus pre-existed as Adam, or as anyone. For Paul counters these Jewish speculations by underlining that the Lord Jesus was human. The hymn of Phil. 2:6-11 is really a setting out of the similarities and differences between Adam and Jesus- and unlike Adam, Jesus did not even consider equality with God as something to be grasped for (Gen. 3:5). The record of the wilderness temptations also appears designed to highlight the similarities and differences between Adam and Jesus- both were tempted, Adam eats, Jesus refuses to eat; both are surrounded by the animals and Angels (Mk. 1:13).

A false understanding of the nature of the Lord Jesus is related to a wrong understanding of sin and the whole nature and need for atonement. There was a first century Jewish speculation that Adam would be re-incarnated as Messiah, and this was connected with the idea that Adam was somehow sinless. The Book of Enoch blames the fall of man to the sin of the [supposed] Angels in Genesis 6, rather than Adam’s sin in Eden; and some early Jewish Christians likewise denied the fall of Adam, blaming humanity’s problems rather on the supposed visit of Angels to the earth [according to their misinterpretation of Genesis 6] (25). In all this we see a refusal to face sin for what it is, and to dilute human responsibility for sin, blaming it rather on supposedly fallen Angels. It is this, on a psychological level at least, which appears to be the root cause for the misinterpretation on the Genesis 6 passage. I’ve written more about this in chapter 5 of The Real Devil. This failure to perceive the importance and nature of sin led to wrong thinking as to how salvation could be achieved. According to the Gnostics, mankind was to be saved simply by the act of “the Heavenly man” descending to earth and ascending back to Heaven (see the Naasene Hymn and Hippolytus in Refutations 5.6-11). The Biblical picture is much different. The Lord Jesus was born of an ordinary woman, human, with all our temptations (Heb. 2:14-18; 4:15,16), and only through His struggle against sin, unto death, can we be saved. This is a far different picture from that of popular Christianity, whereby [just as in the Gnostic theory], some non-human redeemer saved us merely by making a trip down to earth and back to Heaven again. Such a theory also says something about the nature of God- would He really forgive us all the hurt we cause Him, just because someone took a trip from Heaven to earth and back again? Is the God of the Bible really so tokenistic and so easily satisfied by ritual for the sake of it? The huge place accorded to the death and resurrection of Jesus by the New Testament writers is clearly enough a denial of the Gnostic idea of the Heavenly redeemer coming down to earth and ascending again for our redemption. And yet this mistaken idea is clearly behind the theology of mainstream Christianity- even though it utterly devalues the cross and resurrection. John’s idea is that the Lord Jesus was ‘lifted up’ on the cross, and yet ‘lifted up’ is the term used for exaltation to and by God (Jn. 3:14 etc. all play on this idea). The Lord’s ascension to Heaven wasn’t therefore a ‘going home’, as required by the Gnostic pre-existence theory; it was a wonderful exaltation of “the man Christ Jesus” from earth to Heaven, in recognition of His supreme achievment. Truly has it been commented: “The dogma of Christ’s deity turned Jesus into a Hellenistic redeemer-god, and thus was a myth propagated behind which the historical Jesus completely disappeared” (26).

Further, the Lord Jesus is set up in so many ways as the example for us to follow- in a way that some cosmic being descending from outer space never could have been. In the same way as Jesus was the image of the invisible God in His character (Col. 1:15; 2 Cor. 4:4), so we are bidden put on the image of God (Col. 3:10), being transformed into His image progressively over time (2 Cor. 3:18), through “the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2), being conformed to the image of Jesus our Saviour (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49). Thus the process of our redemption, through the perfect character of Jesus, becomes in turn a personal pattern for each of us who have been saved by that process. And it was only through the successful completion of that work of redemption that Jesus was “made” Lord of all (Rom. 1:4; Acts 2:36). This is a different picture to the Gnostic / Trinitarian idea of a pre-existent Lord of all descending to earth. Further, their theory gets somewhat confused when they claim that the Angelic appearances on earth in Old Testament times [e.g. the Angel with Israel in the wilderness] were actually appearances of Jesus on earth. If this is so, then when did Jesus come to earth to save men? Did He make several visits…? Why couldn’t each of these visits have been enough for human salvation? The idea that the Lord Jesus was an Old Testament Angel is simply unsustainable in Scripture and needs to be rejected, along with all Gnostic influenced views of Him. We know from Acts 14:11 that there was a strong tendency in the first century to believe that the gods could come to earth in the likeness of men; and trinitarianism simply reflects the fact that weak Christians in the early centuries sought to accomodate their existing beliefs to Christianity.

Notes
(1) See Larry Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion And Ancient Jewish Monotheism (London: T. & T. Clark, 2003) pp. 71-92.
(2) N.A. Dahl, “Christ, Creation And The Church” in The Background Of The New Testament , ed. W.D. Davies and D. Daube (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1964) pp. 422-443.
(3) Vincent Taylor, The Person Of Christ In New Testament Teaching (London: Macmillan, 1959) p. 62.
(4) Evidence provided in Rudolf Bultmann, Theology Of The New Testament (New York: Scribner’s, 1965) Vol. 1 pp. 132, 176, 178.
(5) See J. Moffatt, The Epistle To The Hebrews (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1924) pp. 11,38; C.K. Barrett, The New Testament Background (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989 ed.) pp. 174-184.

(6) Arthur Gibson, Biblical Semantic Logic (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981) p. 26. The same point is often exemplified in Jmaes Barr, The Semantics Of Biblical Language (Oxford: O.U.P., 1961).

(7) See my The Real Devil chapter 1.

(8) John Macdonald, The Theology Of The Samaritans (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964) p. 162.

(9) References in James Dunn, Christology In The Making (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980) p. 100.

(10) Martin Hengel, Acts And The History Of Earliest Christianity (London: S.C.M., 1979) p. 106.

(11) See John Hick, ed., The Myth Of God Incarnate (London: S.C.M., 1977) p. 67.

(12) John Macdonald, op cit., pp. 135, 221, 306.

(13) W. Bauer, Orthodoxy And Heresy In Earliest Christianity (London: S.C.M., 1972) pp. 44-60; H.G. Kippenburg, Gerazim And Synagogue (Berlin & New York: Gruyter, 1971) pp. 205, 316, 367.

(14) Mentioned in Bauer, op cit., p. 44.

(15) Harry Whittaker, ‘The Jewish Plot’, in Studies In The Acts Of The Apostles (Wigan: Biblia, 1991); and my ‘The Jewish Satan’ in The Real Devil (Sydney: Aletheia, 2007).

(16) Michael Goulder, in John Hick, ed., The Myth Of God Incarnate (London: S.C.M., 1977) p. 84.

(17) J. Danielou, The Theology Of Jewish Christianity: A History Of Early Christian Doctrine (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1964) chapter 4, ‘The Trinity and Angelology’.

(18) James Dunn, Christology In The Making (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980) pp. 132, 150.

(19) H. Ringgren, Word And Wisdom (Lund: Ohlsson, 1947) pp. 165-171. See too his The Faith Of Qumran (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1963).

(20) See documentation in Oscar Cullmann, The Christology Of The New Testament (London: S.C.M., 1971) pp. 15,16.

(21) Kenneth Wuest, Great Truths To Live By (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952) p. 30.

(22) E.G. Selwyn, First Epistle Of St. Peter (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983) p. 124. Likewise Emil Schurer: “In Jewish thinking, everything truly valuable preexisted in heaven”, The History of The Jewish People In The Age Of Jesus Christ (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1979) Vol. 2 p. 522.

(23) H. Mowinckel, He That Cometh (Nashville: Abingdon, 1954) p. 334.

(24) E.C. Dewick, Primitive Christian Eschatology (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1912) pp. 253,254.

(25) For documentation, see Oscar Cullmann, The Christology Of The New Testament (London: S.C.M., 1971) p. 170.

(26) Martin Werner, The Formation Of Christian Doctrine: An Historical Study Of Its Problems (London: A. & C. Black, 1957) p. 298.

5. Dirty Politics

A review of the “Letters concerning the Decrees of the Council of Nicaea”, published in English translation in the Collection Of Nicene And Post-Nicene Fathers, reveals that Athanasius kept insisting that the church had the right to definitively interpret Scripture, and it was their authority to interpret it as they wished, and therefore no great weight should be placed on the fact that at times their conclusions and dogmas weren’t supported by the Bible text. Letter 5.20,21 reads: “The bishops… were compelled to collect the sense of the Scriptures… the expressions [of the proposed doctrine of the Trinity] are not in so many words in the Scriptures”. It was not a question of those men being ‘compelled’ at all- they ought to have been faithful to the Biblical text, rather than demanding that others accept their “sense” on pain of being called non-Christian and cast out of the church. It is this attitude to the Bible itself which ultimately determines whether we accept or reject the Trinity.

The argument between Arius (non-trinitarian) and Athanasius (trinitarian) was more political than it was theological or Biblical. There was a power struggle between the two men. Once Christianity became the state religion of the Roman empire, power within the church became political power. These two Christian leaders both had significant followings; and they both wanted power. The followers of the two groups fought pitched battles with each other in the urban centres of the empire. There are numerous accounts of Athanasius’ followers beating and murdering non-trinitarian Christians in the lead up to the Council of Nicea, torturing their victims and parading their dead bodies around (1). The trinitarian Athanasius was by far the more brutal. “Bishop Athanasius, a future saint… had his opponents excommunicated and anathematized, beaten and intimidated, kidnapped, imprisoned, and exiled to distant provinces” (2). As in any power struggle, the opponents of both sides became vilified and demonized; the issue of how to formulate a creed about the nature of Jesus became a matter of polemics and politics, with the non-trinitarians being described in the most vitriolic of language. Non-trinitarians were accused of “rending the robe of Christ”, crucifying Him afresh, and far worse. Sadly this spirit of vilification of those who hold another view has continued to this day, with many trinitarians refusing to accept any non-trinitarian as a Christian. Arius complained in a letter that “We are persecuted because we say that Son had a beginning, but that God was without beginning” (3). At the Council of Nicea, Bishop Nicholas- who later became the legendary saint of Christmas in much of Europe- slapped Arius around the face (4). It would be wrong to think of the dispute as a matter of learned men of God disagreeing with each other over a matter of Biblical interpretation. Athanasius, who had the ear of Constantine more than Arius, was out for victory. He therefore emotionalized the issue and used every manner of politics and destruction of his opponents in order to get Constantine to come down on his side, exile Arius for heresy, and therefore leave him as the senior churchman of the Roman empire- which meant major political power, in an empire which had newly adopted Christianity and sought to enforce it as the empire’s religion. Often I hear the comment ‘Well this matter was all looked into long ago, and wise Christians weighed it up and came to a prayerful conclusion, which tradition Christians rightly follow and uphold’. The history of the matter is quite different, and those who make such statements are sadly ignorant. Athanasius compounded his physical attacks on Arius’ supporters, his burning of their churches etc, with a series of personal slanders against the leading non-trinitarians, calling them seducers, rapists, frequenters of prostitutes, etc (5). If the argument was really just about the interpretation of Scripture, there needn’t have been all this personal attacking and politicking and rioting. Clearly, the issue of accepting the trinity was all about power politics. In any case, we simply cannot allow our personal faith and understanding of God and His Son to be dictated and defined by a church council of many centuries ago. Reviewing the history of the Christian church hardly gives much reason to trust its “councils” to come up with Godly, Biblical decisions. Just think back through the burning of heretics and suspected witches, torture to the death of non-trinitarians such as Michael Servetus by Luther, anti-semitism, the crusades, the Inquisition, church support for Fascism, for war and violence, for making black people stay out of white churches in the USA and South Africa… high level “Christian” decision making has a pathetic record. We really have no reason at all to allow “church councils” to define our view of the Lord, Saviour and Master with whom we are to have an intensely personal relationship mediated by His word. I cannot rest my faith on the shoulders of men; true faith cannot be a secondhand faith. It must trace its origins directly back to the Lord Jesus and His word, rather than back to some cranky guys playing church politics in the fourth century.

Constantine was a politician, not a Bible student. “Constantine’s goal was to create a neutral public space in which Christians and pagans could both function… creating a stable coalition of both Christians and non-Christians” in the Roman empire (6). He also realized that Christianity itself had to be united if it were to be the state religion, and so he wanted there to be only one view on this contentious issue of who Jesus was. It was intolerable for him that Christians were rioting against each other over it. The matter had to be resolved. One side had to be chosen as right, and the other side must be silenced. He came down on the side of Athanasius for political reasons- adopted the trinitarian creed for the church, and exiled Arius. And so, Jesus ‘became’ God because of that. In the same spirit of wanting a united church at all costs, Constantine agreed at Nicea a whole range of other measures which were likewise not Biblical- e.g. that anyone excommunicated by a Bishop in one province could never be accepted in another province, and the appointment of “superbishops” in Alexandria, Rome and Antioch who would decide all contentious issues in future. Personal conscience and understanding didn’t matter; all Constantine wanted was a united church, as he believed it would result in a united empire. One empire, one religion- and therefore, that religion had to be united, and dissent had to quashed. Someone had to be made out as totally right, and someone as totally wrong. Sadly one sees today the very same mentality in so many churches and local congregations. It’s all about power. The mess made in early Christianity remains our sober warning in these last days.

Constantine’s Legacy

Constantine’s integrity is for me self-questioned by his claim to be “the thirteenth apostle”. Such a person can hardly be taken as a founding father of the true church. And add to this his murder of his rivals, boiling his wife to death in her bath, murdering one of his sons. Paul Johnson documents all this, and in the context of the trinity [and other] political agreements, comments: “His abilities had always lain in management… he was a master of the smoothly-worded compromise” (7). Indeed, Constantine wrote to both Arius and Alexander that he considered the theological issues themselves to be of no importance: “Having inquired carefully into the origin and foundation of these differences, I find their cause to be of a truly insignificant nature, quite unworthy of such bitter contention” (8). It really was all just dirty politics- for soon after writing this, non-trinitarians were cast out of the church as infidels and heretics, over an issue which Constantine considered “insignificant”. It wasn’t many centuries later that the Crusaders raped and pillaged both Moslem and Jewish cities, in the name of the Trinity and justified by the idea that those who didn’t accept it, and were monotheists, should be put to the sword. John Calvin, in this spirit, ordered the destruction of Michael Servetus, because he too came to deny the Trinity. For this, he “deserved to have his bowels ripped out and to be torn in pieces” (9). So much for Calvin as a father of the so-called reformation. Nothing very fundamental was reformed. And Michael Servetus was taken to his execution in a dung cart, and burned alive with his anti-trinitarian writings, and the flames were fed with every known copy of his book Christianismi Restutio– a book which called for the restoration of Christianity to its non-trinitarian original form. The downright nastiness of many Trinitarians to non-Trinitarians today, branding them as cults etc., is a continuation of this spirit.

Notes

(1) See R.P.C. Hanson, The Search For The Christian Doctrine Of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988) p. 386.
(2) Richard Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God (London: Harcourt, 2000) p. 6.
(3) Quoted in Rubenstein, ibid p. 58.
(4) Mentioned in Rubenstein, ibid p. 77.
(5) These things are chronicled extensively in T.D. Barnes, Constantine And Eusebius (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981) pp. 18-27 and throughout T.D. Barnes,Athanasius And Constantius: Theology And Politics In The Constantinian Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).

(6) H.A. Drake, Constantine And Consensus (Oxford: O.U.P., 1995). The same author concludes that Constantine realized that Christianity was unstoppable, and therefore it was better to merge with it than seek to destroy it. See his Constantine And The Bishops: The Politics Of Intolerance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2000).

(7) Paul Johnson, A History Of Christianity (New York: Atheneum, 1976) pp. 67,68.

(8) Quoted in Ian Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence (London: Harper & Row, 1984) p. 165.

(9) As quoted in A. Buzzard and C. Hunting, The Doctrine Of The Trinity (Oxford: International Scholars Press, 1998) p. 155. For more on Calvin’s persecution of Servetus, see Marian Hillar, The Case of Michael Servetus (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997).

6. A Desire For Acceptance

Thomas Gaston and others have pointed out that despite the initial working-class beginnings of first century Biblical Christianity, by the second century there was a determined effort by the Christian community to attract higher class followers. The majority of the non-canonical Acts, epistles and Gospels reflect something of this. There was a desire to present the Christian message in terms which the educated and upper classes could understand and accept. The attacks of Celsus and others on Christianity in the 2nd century indicate a concern on their part that the edcuated classes were attracted to it and even accepting it. Kyrtatos observes: “Christianity is presented in the New Testament in a form that was unacceptable… to people of education… one of the dearest concerns of the second century [Christian] apologists… [was] the translation of Christianity into a language that could be understood and accepted by the upper classes” (1). This would explain why the Christian apologists began to present Biblical Christianity in Platonic terms, just as Philo the Jew presented Jewish history in such terms- and it was but a short step to accepting and incorporating the Platonic ideas of the immortal soul, a personally pre-existent “Logos” figure etc. And this is what happened. The desire to win educated converts led to the early church writers of the second century adopting Platonic terminology with which to describe the Lord Jesus, and it stuck. Some second century Christian leaders even wrote to the Roman Emperor, addressing him as the “chief philosopher”, begging him not to persecute Christians because Christianity and Greek philosophy were essentially the same thing. Justin’s First Apology is a classic example (2). The apocryphal Preaching Of Peter 2 claims that “we [Christians] and the good Greeks worship the same God” (3). The deconstruction of Greek philosophy which we meet throughout the New Testament was sadly ignored in the desperate desire to be acceptable within society. As Gaston comments: “It is not coincidence that the Middle Platonists also believed in the ‘three-ness’ of God” (4). Thus it was through the conscious desire to present Christianity in Platonic terms that the concept of the trinity entered Christian thought. But there can be no doubt that this was not a reflection of the Biblical texts themselves.

(1) D.J. Kyrtatos, The Social Structure Of The Early Christian Communities (London: Vergo, 1987) p. 99. See too Thomas Gaston, Proto-Trinity: The Development Of The Doctrine Of The Trinity In The First And Second Centuries (MPhil. thesis, University of Birmingham UK, 2007, published by Lulu Press, 2007) p. 28.

(2) See F. Young in M.Edwards et al, eds., Apologetics In The Roman Empire (Oxford: O.U.P., 1999) pp. 83,84, 94.

(3) As cited in Gaston op cit. p. 35.

(4) Gaston op cit. p. 56.

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