Criticism of Mormonism/Books/Do Christians Believe in Three Gods/Bible and Nicea

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Is Nicene Trinitarianism Biblical?

A FairMormon Analysis of: Do Christians Believe in Three Gods?, a work by author: RBC Ministries

Making sense of the Biblical data

As we have seen in the previous section (and as the RBC pamphlet has laid out quite clearly), anyone who accepts the Old and New Testaments as the word of God must reconcile two different sets of data:

  1. God is said to be "one."
  2. There are multiple persons who are referred to as "God" (the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost).

This far, the Bible can take us. And, as the RBC pamphlet candidly admits, "the word trinity never appears in the sacred Scriptures" (3, italics in original). The pamphlet then asks, "Is the doctrine of a three-in-one God biblical?...Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox branches of the church all agree that the New Testament teaching of a three-in-one God is a doctrine firmly grounded in Scripture not in philosophy." (3-4).

The pamphlet here steps onto more problematic ground. Is it true that the three-in-one God described by the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) and refined over centuries thereafter is "firmly grounded in Scripture"? And, do all Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox scholars agree with this stance?

Does the Bible contain also the necessary elements for Nicene Trinitarianism?

To answer this question, we will turn to non-LDS scholars. These authors are mainstream authors addressing this very question. For example:

In order to argue successfully for the unconditionally and permanence of the ancient Trinitarian Creeds, it is necessary to make a distinction between doctrines, on the one hand, and on the terminology and conceptuality in which they were formulated on the other... Some of the crucial concepts employed by these creeds, such as "substance", "person", and "in two natures" are post-biblical novelties. If these particular notions are essential, the doctrines of these creeds are clearly conditional, dependent on the late Hellenistic milieu. [1]

Note that this author says that many of “the crucial concepts” are “post-biblical novelties”: that is, they are new ideas that arrived on the scene after the Bible was written. If the crucial concepts weren’t around until later, then the doctrine wasn’t around until later either. As the author notes, these ideas arose out of the “Hellenistic milieu”, that is: Greek philosophy.

It is clearly impossible (if one accepts historical evidence as relevant at all) to escape the claim that the later formulations of dogma cannot be reached by a process of deductive logic from the original propositions and must contain an element of novelty...The emergence of the full trinitarian doctrine was not possible without significant modification of previously accepted ideas. [2]

Said David Noel Freedman:

So in many was the Bible remains true to its “primitive” past [by accepting the strongly anthropomorphic understanding of God/Yahweh] and is less compatible with philosophical notions of an abstract being, or ultimate reality or ground of being. Just as there is an important and unbridgeable distance between Yahweh and the gods of Canaan, or those of Mesopotamia or Egypt or Greece or Rome, so there is at least an equal or greater distance from an Aristotelian unmoved mover, or even a Platonic Idea or Ideal. The biblical God is always and uncompromisingly personal: he is above all a person, neither more nor less. [3]

New ideas and concepts were required, some of which drew on Plato and Aristotle, Greek philosophers.

The formal doctrine of the Trinity as it was defined by the great church councils of the 4th and 5th centuries is not to be found in the New Testament. [4]

A Catholic encyclopedia notes that Trinitarianism doesn’t really appear until the last 25 years of the 4th century:

Trinitarian discussion, Roman Catholic as well as others, presents a somewhat unsteady silhouette. Two things have happened. There is the recognition on the part of exegetes and Biblical theologians, including a constantly growing number of Roman Catholics, that one should not speak of Trinitarianism in the New Testament without serious qualification. There is also the closely parallel recognition on the part of historians of dogma and systematic theologians that when one does speak of an unqualified Trinitarianism, one has moved from the period of Christian origins to, say, the last quadrant of the 4th century. [5]

A Jesuit [Catholic] scholar says this:

There is no formal doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament writers, if this means an explicit teaching that in one God there are three co-equal divine persons. But the three are there, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and a triadic ground plan is there, and triadic formulas are there....The Biblical witness to God, as we have seen, did not contain any formal or formulated doctrine of the Trinity, any explicit teaching that in one God there are three co-equal divine persons. [6]

The idea of “three” is present: but not as ‘three co-equal divine persons’ that are one being. An idea about the nature of God (or the Godhead) is present, but it is different from that which is taught as Nicene Trinitarianism.

Two authors even assert that the Apostle Paul, the four gospels, and Acts have no Trinitarian understanding:

...there is no trinitarian doctrine in the Synoptics or Acts...nowhere do we find any trinitarian doctrine [in the New Testament] of three distinct subjects of divine life and activity in the same God head...These passages [i.e. the Pauline epistles] give no doctrine of the Trinity, but they show that Paul linked together Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They give no trinitarian formula...but they offer material for the later development of trinitarian doctrine...[Paul] has no formal Trinitarian doctrine and no clear-cut realization of a Trinitarian problem…in John there is no trinitarian formula. [7]

And:

This double series of texts manifests Paul's lack of clarity in his conception of the relation of the Spirit to the Son. Paul shares with the Old Testament a more fluid notion of personality than the later theological refinements of nature, substance, and person. His lack of clarity should be respected for what it is and be regarded only as the starting point of the later development. [8]

So, Paul doesn’t even ‘realize’ that there is a ‘Trinitarian problem’. Could this be because for Paul there was no such problem, because the doctrine was unknown to him? It was not an issue in his era, because it was not taught by Jesus or the Apostles.

One author asserts that the Nicene Trinity is correct, but readily admits that:

The God whom we experience as triune is, in fact, triune. But we cannot read back into the New Testament, much less the Old Testament, the more sophisticated trinitarian theology and doctrine which slowly and often unevenly developed over the course of some fifteen centuries. [9]

Clearly, while the Biblical data can be read in light of the Nicene three-in-one formulation endorsed by RBC Ministries, it is not accurate to say that such a view comes only from scripture. It required the addition other concepts, and some of those concepts came out of Greek philosophy.

What other new ideas had to be added to form Nicene Trinitarianism?

Robert Casey wrote long ago that “Origen’s development of Clement [of Alexandria’s] thought is characteristically thorough and systematic. He acknowledges that the doctrine of God’s immateriality is, at least formally, new, and asserts that the word asomatos ["no body" in Greek] had been unknown alike to biblical writers and to Christian theologians before his time.” [10] Casey also wrote that “the Christian doctrine of God was becoming inextricably involved in a trinitarian theory, the substance and form of which would have been impossible but for Clement and Origen, whose immaterialist teaching it presupposed.” [11]

Jesuit Roland Teske states that Augustine turned to Manichaeism because he thought that all Christians believed in an anthropomorphic God, which he could not accept on philosophical grounds. Teske reports that Augustine believed that in accepting the Manichee doctrine he was joining a Christian sect which rejected the “anthropomorphic interpretation of the scriptural claim that man was made in the image of God” as taught in Genesis 1:26. [12]

In a footnote to the above statement Teske writes that “prior to Augustine…the Western Church was simply without a concept of God as a spiritual substance.” Augustine apparently believed that the Catholic Church taught that God had a body similar to that of a mortal, and that belief prevented him from seeking truth within the Church. [13] Augustine tells us in another work that it was the preaching of Ambrose of Milan who helped him see that there was another way to view God, which ‘spirituals’ alone could decipher. [14]

Thus, there were new ideas about God's nature which originated with Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine—these ideas were not Biblical, but philosophical.

What about John 10:30?

The RBC pamphlet continues:

The second statement of Christ in which He calls Himself God is John 10:30....He said, "I and My Father are one." The religious leaders recognized that He was claiming deity when He made this statement....They realized full well that He was saying more than if a man said "I and my wife are one." This husband would mean simply that he and his wife are one in their desires, plans, or ambitions. Jesus obviously meant more than that. He was saying that He and the Father are one in essence.(10-11)

The pamphlet is certainly correct in saying that Jesus was claiming to be divine. Jesus is God, and the Latter-day Saints believe this fervently (see here) for an extensive discussion later in this reply).

However, the pamphlet stumbles when it tries to describe the nature of the oneness to which Jesus refers. The pamphlet claims that Jesus is teaching a oneness in essence with the Father. This claim goes far beyond the Greek text. The concept of essence is a philosophical category, not a biblical one. The RBC is here reading in their Nicene Trinitarian ideas: they are not present in the text.

In fact, the text disagrees with this reading. One author wrote of it:

[John 10:30] was a key verse in the early Trinitarian controversies. On the one extreme, the onarchians (Sabellians) interpreted it to mean "one person," although the "one" is neuter, not masculine. On the other extreme, the Arians interpreted this text, which was often used against them, in terms of moral unity of will. The Protestant commentator Engel, following Augustine, sums up the Orthodox position: "Through the word "are" Sabellius is refuted; through the word one" so is Arius...." [In the Gospel of] John...all these relationships between Father and Son are described in function of the one's dealings with men. It would be up to the work of later theologians to take this gospel material pertaining to the mission of the Son add extra and draw from it a theology of the inner life of the Trinity. [15]

Note that “one” in this verse is neuter, not masculine. In Greek, the masculine would be used to indicate a oneness of person or being, and neuter implies a oneness of purpose. So, read literally the verse merely says that Jesus and the Father are one in purpose or will: only a belief in the Nicene Trinity at the outset would lead one to read this as a passage which teaches that doctrine. This is circular reasoning; the Greek says something quite different.

Another non-LDS Christian scholar wrote of these verses:

The basic reason for this choice [of reading] is to be found in John 10:30: “The Father and I are one” (hen). Note that Jesus is not saying, “The Father and I are numerically one” (heis), but uses a term meaning “we are together” (Greek hen, as used again in v.38: “The Father is in me and I am in the Father”). The union of the Father and Son does not blot out the difference and individuality of each. Union rather supposes differentiation. Through love and through reciprocal communion they are one single thing, the one God-love. [16]

Note also that later theologians had to contribute ‘extra’ information to solve the problem—the very material which RBC has assumed is present, when it is not. The extra ideas which were added were necessary for the Trinitarian formulae of today, but they are not "biblical." The unity of husband and wife which the pamphlet dismisses (in favor of the non-Biblical idea of unity of essence) is, in fact, a better match for the Greek.

Only by supposing Nicene Trinitarianism and misreading the Greek can John 10:30 be made to support it.

Summary

RBC Ministries seems to insist that "Christians" have always accepted a view of the Godhead that matches Nicene Trinitarianism. Furthermore, they argue that anyone who doesn't accept such a formulation isn't really Christian. Unfortunately, this view cannot be defended from the Bible, as they claim.

We conclude this section with succinct summaries from non-LDS Christian scholars of many persuasions.

Thus the New Testament itself is far from any doctrine of the Trinity or of a triune God who is three co-equal Persons of One Nature. [17]
The New Testament does not contain the developed doctrine of the Trinity. [18]
There is in them [the Apostolic Fathers], of course, no trinitarian doctrine and no awareness of a trinitarian problem." [19]
The Church had to wait for more than three hundred years for a final synthesis, for not until the Council of Constantinople [AD 381] was the formula of one God existing in three coequal Persons formally ratified. [20]

Clearly, the Bible is not the source of modern Trinitarianism. The next section will explore its origins.
To learn more:

Endnotes

  1. George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), 92.
  2. Maurice Wiles, The Making of Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 4, 144.
  3. David Noel Freedman, “When God Repents,” in Divine Commitment and Human Obligation: Selected Writings of David Noel Freedman, Volume One: History and Religion (William B. Eerdmans, 1997), 414.
  4. P Achtemeier, editor, Harper's Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), 1099.
  5. RL Richard, "Trinity, Holy", in New Catholic Encyclopedia, 15 vols. (New York:McGraw-Hill, 1967), 14:295.
  6. Edmund J. Fortman, The Triune God: A Historical Study of the Doctrine of the Trinity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972), 32,35.
  7. Edmund J. Fortman, The Triune God: A Historical Study of the Doctrine of the Trinity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972), 14,16, 22-23, 29.
  8. J Fitzmyer, Pauline Theology: A Brief Sketch (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey): Prentice-Hall, 1967), 42.
  9. Richard P. McBrian, Catholicism (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1980), 347.
  10. Robert P. Casey, “Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Platonism,” Harvard Theological Review 18 (1925): 39–101, at page 82, referring to Contra Celsum 7.27, and Commentary on John 13.22.
  11. Ibid., 100.
  12. Roland Teske, S.J., “Divine Immutability in St. Augustine,” Modern Schoolman 63 (1986): 233–249, at page 236–237.
  13. Ibid., 237–238, with notes 25 and 34, citing Confessions 5.10.19 (Pusey translation, page 77).
  14. Ibid., 238–239, quoting De beata vita 1.4.
  15. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I–XII (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co. Inc.), 403, 407.
  16. Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society, trans. Paul Burns (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1988), 5.
  17. William J. Hill, The Three-Personed God (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1982), 27.
  18. New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids MI, Zondervan, 1967), 1:84.
  19. JND Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, revised edition, (New York: Harper, 1978), 95.
  20. Edmund J. Fortman, The Triune God: A Historical Study of the Doctrine of the Trinity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972), 44.

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