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March 14, 2018 Comparative Religion 0

the origin of the Trinity from paganism to Constantine part 1


This proof that the Christian Trinity descended from the Etruscan and Roman triads. However, Laing convincingly devotes his entire book Survivals of the Roman Gods to the comparison of Roman paganism and the Roman Catholic Church. Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan, a Catholic scholar and professor at Yale, confirms the Church’s respect for pagan ideas when he states that the Apologists and other early church fathers used and cited the pagan Roman Sibylline Oracles so much that they were called ‘Sibyllists’ by the 2nd century critic, Celsus. There was even a medieval hymn, ‘Dies irae,’ which foretold the ‘coming of the day of wrath’ based on the ‘dual authority of ‘David and the Sibyl”. The attitude of the Church toward paganism is best summed up in Pope Gregory the Great’s words to a missionary: ‘You must not interfere with any traditional belief or religious observance that can be harmonized with Christianity’ (qtd. in Laing 130).

In contrast, Judaism is strongly monotheistic with no hint of a trinity. The Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) is filled with scriptures such as ‘before Me there was no God formed, Neither shall any be after Me’ (#Isa 43:10 qtd. in Isaiah), and ‘there is no other God…I am the Lord and there is none else’ (#Isa 45:14,18 qtd. in Isaiah). A Jewish commentary affirms that ‘[no] other gods exist, for to declare this would be blasphemous…’ (Chumash 458). Even though ‘Word,’ ‘Spirit,’ ‘Presence,’ and ‘Wisdom’ are used as personifications of God, Biblical scholars agree that the Trinity is neither mentioned nor intended by the authors of the Old Testament (Lonergan 130; Fortman xv; Burns 2).

We can conclude without much difficulty that the concept of the Trinity did not come from Judaism. Nor did Jesus speak of a trinity. The message of Jesus was of the coming kingdom; it was a message of love and forgiveness. As for his relationship with the Father, Jesus said, ‘… I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me’,{# Joh 5:30} and in another place ‘my doctrine is not mine, but His that sent me’;{# Joh 7:16} and his words ‘my Father is greater than I’ {#Joh 14:28} leave no doubt as to their relationship.

The word ‘trinity’ was not coined until Tertullian, more than 100 years after Christ’s death, and the key words (meaning substance) from the Nicene debate,homousis and ousis,  are not biblical, but from Stoic thought. Nowhere in the Bible is the Trinity mentioned. According to Pelikan, ‘One of the most widely accepted conclusions of the 19th century history of dogma was the thesis that the dogma of the Trinity was not an explicit doctrine of the New Testament, still less of the Old Testament, but had evolved from New Testament times to the 4th century. (Historical Theology 134)

If the Trinity did not originate with the Bible, where did it come from? To find the origins of the Trinity in Christianity, we need to take a look at the circumstances in which early Christians found themselves.

Even the Church of the Apostles’ day was far from unified. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians that ‘the mystery of iniquity doth already work’.{2Th 2:7} Throughout his book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, the German New Testament scholar, lexicographer, and early Church historian, Walter Bauer, effectively proves that many early Christians were influenced by gnosticism. He believes it possible that certain ‘[heresies recorded by early Christian Fathers] originally had not been such at all, but, at least here and there…were simply ‘Christianity”(xxii). Bauer goes even further, as he proves that early Christians in Edessa appear to have been followers of the Marcion’s beliefs (considered heretical today), with ‘orthodox’ views being so strongly in the minority that ‘Christian’ referred to one with Marcion’s beliefs, and ‘Palutian’ to one with ‘orthodox’ (by today’s standards) beliefs. In his work The Greek Fathers, James Marshall Campbell, a Greek professor, bears out the great fear of gnosticism prevalent in the early church.

With Gnosticism being so predominant in this early period, it behooves one to learn what they believed, for many early church writings were defenses against gnosticism. Gnosticism borrowed much of its philosophy and religion from Mithraism, oriental mysticism, astrology, magic, and Plato. It considered matter to be evil and in opposition to Deity, relied heavily on visions, and sought salvation through knowledge. The late Professor Arthur Cushman McGiffert interprets some of the early Christian fathers as believing the Gnosticism to be ‘identical to [sic] all intents and purposes with Greek polytheism’ (50). Gnosticism had a mixed influence on the early Christian writers: like the pendulum on a clock, some were influenced by Gnostic thought, while others swung to the opposite extreme.

Knowledge was also the desire of the Greek philosophers. We owe a lot to these sages of old. J. N. D. Kelly, lecturer and principal at St. Edward Hall, Oxford University, states that ‘[the concepts of philosophy] provided thinkers… with an intellectual framework for expressing their ideas’ to the extent that it became the ‘deeper religion of most intelligent people’. The eminent theologian Adolf Harnack considered Greek philosophy and culture to be factors in the formation of the ‘ecclesiastical mode of thought’.

According to McGiffert, the concepts of philosophy prevalent during the time of the early church were Stoicism, which was ‘ethical in its interests and monistic in its ontology’ and Platonism, which was ‘dualistic and predominately religious’.

That these philosophies affected Christianity is a historical fact. What did these philosophers teach about God? In Plato’s Timeus, ‘The Supreme Reality appears in the trinitarian form of the Good, the Intelligence, and the World-Soul’ (qtd. in Laing 129). Laing attributes elaborate trinitarian theories to the Neoplatonists, and considers Neoplatonic ideas as ‘one of the operative factors in the development of Christian theology’.

Is this positive proof that the Christian Trinity descended from Greek philosophy? No. However, in a comparison between the church of the third century and that of 150-200 years before, the noted German theologian, Adolf Harnack, finds ‘few Jewish, but many Greco-Roman features, and… the philosophic spirit of the Greeks’ (1: 45). In addition, Durant ties in philosophy with Christianity when he states that the second century Alexandrian Church, from which both Clement and Origen came, ‘wedded Christianity to Greek philosophy’ (Caesar 613); and finally, Durant writes of the famed pagan philosopher, Plotinus, that ‘Christianity accepted nearly every line of him…’ (Caesar 611).

By Chel-El Hagensick

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