|SOME BRIEF HISTORICAL NOTES|
God has revealed some things about Himself in the Bible and careful students learn from them that God is a Trinity. The adversary the Devil soon made sure that this is distorted and misunderstood. Atheists and Sceptics soon make fun of the teaching.
AN ATTACK OF AN ATHEIST
Robert Ingersoll, an American atheist who lived 1833-1899, makes the following confused comments in Ingersoll's Works, Vol. 4, p. 266-67:
Christ, according to the faith, is the second person in the Trinity, the Father being the first and the Holy Ghost third.
Each of these persons is God. Christ is his own father and his own son. The Holy Ghost is neither father nor son, but both.
The son was begotten by the father, but existed before he was begotten--just the same before as after. Christ is just as old as his father, and the father is just as young as his son.
The Holy Ghost proceeded from the Father and Son, but was equal to the Father and Son before he proceeded, that is to say, before he existed, but he is of the same age as the other two.
So it is declared that the Father is God, and the Son and the Holy Ghost God, and these three Gods make one God. According to the celestial multiplication table, once one is three, and three time one is one, and according to heavenly subtraction if we take two from three, three are left. The addition is equally peculiar: if we add two to one we have but one. Each one equal to himself and to the other two. Nothing ever was, nothing ever can be more perfectly idiotic and absurd than the dogma of the Trinity.
Any informed Trinitarian will have no difficulty in seeing that it is Ingersoll who is revealing himself to be idiotic. Unfortunately, some Seventh-day Adventist Pioneers were confused about the Trinity doctrine mistaking it for Modalism. They too offered derogatory remarks not unlike those of Ingersoll. The difference is, of course, that these misinformed men were genuine Bible believers not yet truly informed; on the other hand Ingersoll was a mocking Atheistic critic. See my CD Rom book The Trinity Doctrine for Seventh-day Adventists, chapter 5. This is available here.
Other sceptics have joined the attack on the Trinity doctrine over the years and even some Seventh-day Adventists have confused themselves on the subject causing them to go into print making uninformed judgments against the doctrine. In doing this they reveal their own confusion and are responsible for confusing others.
WHAT DID EARLY CHRISTIANS THINK ABOUT THE COMPLEXITY OF GOD?
As I cast my minds back in history I can't help wondering what the early Christians thought of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all being referred to as God? Were they surprised, confused, puzzled? Actually, they would not be too surprised because the Old Testament contained indications of a plurality, a complexity, in God.
Genesis 1:26 reveals God somehow talking to Himself saying, "Let us make man in our image" – plural. Following this the report says that God made man in His image – singular. Genesis 11:7, 8 also has God speaking in the plural of Himself – "Come, let us go down..." – plural. "So the LORD scattered them" – singular.
In an attempt to explain away these statements, some have suggested that we have examples of the plural of majesty (Example - The Queen might say, "We are not pleased with Sarah"). However, as G. A. F. Knight says:
Surely that is to read into Hebrew speech a modern way of thinking. The kings of Israel and Judah are all addressed in the singular in the biblical records. A Biblical Approach to the Doctrine of the Trinity, (Scottish Journal of Theology, Occasional papers No.!) Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, 1953, page 20.
There are other indications of the complexity of God in the Old Testament (see also Genesis 3:22; 19:24; Zechariah 3:2: Isaiah 6:8 etc). So the early Christians would not have been disturbed to find the New Testament revealing further evidence of this. Not only are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all revealed to be God but also they are linked together in a pattern later to be described as Trinitarian. Examples are:
Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:14; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; Ephesians 4:4; 1 Peter 1:2 and Jude 20, 21.
No, the early Christians would not have been surprised that Three were revealed to them to be God, but they had not yet tried to spell out what this meant in a formulated pattern. To us down in the 21st century this seems somewhat surprising. For they had all of the elements for the Trinity doctrine on hand:
WHY WERE THEY NOT TRINITARIANS?
However, where and how was such a fact going to be recognised by the Church for the years following the death of the Apostles were, to say the least, turbulent years. There were many schemes vying for attention. Greek philosophy was trying to be heard, while the Gnostics had all sorts of writings, some of these such as Gospels that they had on hand, were being claimed to be genuinely inspired Christian writings. Dan Brown, who wrote The DaVinci Code, became confused by these and wrote all sorts of nonsense in support of them. It took some centuries for the final decision to be made on which books made up the Biblical Canon.
All sorts of theories claiming to have the truth on just who Jesus was were also being fostered among early Christians. Yes, turmoil was the order of the day. Yet Trinitarian type statements were still being offered by the Christians:
For as God lives, and the Lord Jesus Christ lives, and the holy Spirit, who are the faith and hope of God's chosen. Clement of Rome – end of the first century.
and did to the Father and to Christ and the Spirit. Ignatius letter to Magnesians – end of first century.
The Lord Jesus Christ gather me also with his chosen into his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory with the Father and the holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen. The Martyrdom of Polycarp (AD 70-156).
Statements such as these clearly indicate that Christians had a doctrine, which still needed to by systematised, which we now call the Trinity Doctrine. Christianity was illegal and Christians were murderously persecuted. What has been described as "the worst persecution of all" was under Diocletian Galarius 303-311. So how could a Trinitarian doctrine be systematised and officially proclaimed in the confused hostile atmosphere that prevailed? How could Christians counsel together in order to decide on such a doctrine?
The Church council that did attempt to set down a formula for the Trinity doctrine was held at Nicaea (present day Iznik in Turkey) in 325 A.D. The council was called by Emperor Constantine who was anxious to settle the question of the relationship of Jesus Christ to God the Father. The resulting Creed proclaimed Jesus to have been born (begotten) from God the Father and included a doctrine of the Trinity.
The background to the Counsel in brief is that Arius (c. 250-336 A.D.) a Presbyter of Alexandria, Egypt, was proposing that Jesus was created by God the Father and was therefore inferior to the Father and not of the same Substance. The controversy raged in the Empire for there was a great amount of opposition to Arius.
EMPEROR CONSTANTINE AND THE COUNCIL OF NICEA
The Emperor Constantine 1 (272 - 337 A.D) was apparently exposed to a form of Christianity by his mother. However, he was over 42 when he finally declared himself to be a Christian. After victory at Milvian Bridge Constantine claimed the Emperorship in the west. In 313 Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which allowed freedom of religion in his Empire. Many things have been written about the Christianity of Constantine. I agree that his Christianity was far from being what we would like it to have been. He was not baptised until he was about on his deathbed. But let us remember that his was a very difficult position. He was the Emperor and needed to fulfil his role as Emperor of the great power of Rome. Christianity grew considerably while he was Emperor, but not all were Christians by any means. Constantine was greatly disturbed by the upset caused by Arianism so he called the Council of Nicea in order to settle the dispute.
PROBLEMS BETWEEN ROME AND THE CHURCH OF THE EAST
There were constant problems between the Roman and Eastern sections of the Church. A major problem was the claim by the Roman Church that the Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son. The Eastern Church maintained that He proceeded from the Father only. There was a split that has endured down through the centuries although various attempts have been made to bring about healing.
ARIANISM AND SEMI-ARIANISM
Arianism was rejected most decidedly at the Council and the resulting Creed claimed that Jesus was "begotten" from the Father (not created) and was of the same Substance as the Father. Although it is not stated in the Creed the so-called Orthodox Christians accepted the belief that Jesus was always being born from the Father. This has been described as "Eternal Generation" and was apparently a device intended to protect Jesus from being regarded as less than eternal.
The Athanasian Creed is a better statement than that of Nicea but unfortunately it also claims that Jesus was begotten by the Father.
The Cappadocian Fathers, (of the 4th Century also). One authority states of them:
"the Cappadocians accented the idea of hypostasis or "person," which made it possible to speak in a balanced way of the trinity as a Godhead of one substance and three persons."
The Council at Constantinople in 381 A.D. offered further clarification for the Trinity doctrine. It stated specifically that God is three eternal Persons. Also it declared that the Holy Spirit is a third eternal Person.
It is true that the Roman Catholic Church was responsible for carrying this distorted doctrine down through the centuries. Those who had advocated the "only-begotten" concept against the Arians had distorted the Greek word monogenes, either deliberately or mistakenly, to mean only begotten. In fact it means "only" or "unique" as modern scholarship has certified. These have been labelled Semi-Arians. The following is the definition of Semi-Arianism provided by the three Adventist Scholars, Whidden, Moon, and Reeve in their book The Trinity on page 19:
"the teaching that while the Father and the Son are not coeternal persons, They do share divinity in that the Son was 'begotten' by the Father in the sense that Jesus was generated out of the divine nature of the Father in some sort of 'amoebic split.' Thus, while there was a time when Jesus as a separate and identifiable person did not exist, the divine nature of Jesus was alleged to have derived from that of the Father."
Sadly, much false information is circularised by anti-Trinitarian individuals and groups that have sprung up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. These people believe the same on Jesus' having been born from God as the Semi-Arians of ancient times; and as described in the Nicene Creed, so they have been described as Semi-Arians despite their dislike for the label. These people want to go back to the belief of our leading pioneers that came from The Christian Connection a group that denied the Trinity doctrine. See chapter 5 of my CD Rom book The Trinity Doctrine for Seventh-day Adventists, available here.
It will no doubt be of interest to some for me to refer to the fact that back at the time of the Nicean Council in 325 the Orthodox Christians referred the word homoousios to Jesus and the Father which meant that they were of the same Substance. The Semi-Arians rejected this but would have accepted that they were homoiousios which meant that they were of similar Substance.
Gibbon, the historian, tried to mock this fact of history as a furious contest over the difference caused by a single diphthong. However, it should be obvious that there is a vast difference when the two expressions are used. Jesus was of the same Substance as the Father and not just of the same sort or of similar Substance. I wonder whether Gibbon would make a mockery of the fact that immortal is vastly different to immoral. The letter "t" makes the difference.
FOUR HELPFUL DEFINITIONS
1. THE TRINITY
Some wonder would it not be better to use the word Godhead rather than the word Trinity. They point out that Trinity does not occur anywhere in the Bible. This is true but we use a lot of words to describe Bible truths that don't appear in the Bible. For example: Incarnation does not appear in the Bible but it is a sort of shorthand way of referring to Jesus becoming a man. Millennium does not appear as a Bible word. There are many other words similarly used to describe Bible truth – Omniscience, Omnipresent, Omnipotent are a few of these.
Tertullian (150-225 A.D.) was, as far as we know, the first to coin the word Trinity. He did not have the true doctrine of the Trinity but at least from the time of Nicea on the word has been used to describe the Three in One God.
I seriously doubt that most would take much notice of a work describing the Godhead. It would not be thought of as a work on the Trinity. The word Godhead itself doesn't seem to convey much meaning. On the other hand Trinity describes a well-known attempt to describe the Three in One God. Trinity has sometimes been described as a Tri-unity. I am not in favour of using Godhead rather than Trinity.
This is how the Wikipedia free online Encyclopedia describes Tritheism:
"Tritheism is the belief that there are three distinct, powerful gods, who form a triad. Generally three gods are envisioned as having separate powers and separate supreme beings or spheres of influence but working together. In this respect tritheism differs from dualism, which typically envisages two opposed Divine powers in conflict with one another."
"Proponents of Trinitarianism claim that the three persons of the Trinity do not have separate powers, since they are omnipotent, and do not have separate spheres of influence, since their sphere of influence is unlimited. They argue that the persons of the Trinity have one divine essence and are indivisible, whereas Tritheism appears to suggest three separate gods."
This Wikipdia article on Tritheism ends with the following note:
"Some have suggested that the Seventh-day Adventist Church has embraced a Tritheistic view of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as it does not see their singularity as a Godhead consisting in one being but rather as three separate beings in a single group." It provides a footnote to Moon, Quest for a Biblical Trinity. Jerry Moon wrote this article in the Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 17/1 Spring 2006.
Obviously, the author of the Wikipedia article had not read pages 120, 121 of Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology. The entire article by Fernando L. Canale, Doctrine of God is excellent and a must read for Seventh-day Adventists who genuinely want to understand God.
I regret to say that there is a prevalence of Tritheism within the ranks of Adventists. Rebel non-Trinitarians find delight in claiming that a great number of Adventists are Tritheists. I would say that most of these are unconscious unintentional Tritheists and would claim to be Trinitarians but because they do not have a full understanding of the Trinity doctrine their doctrine is deficient. They believe that the Father is God, that Jesus is God, and that the Holy Spirit is God. They believe that the Three are God and think that is it. I would say that most of them wouldn't understand what Tritheism is. It is true that really they are Tritheists but they are horrified when told so. They are not Tritheists by preference – by choice through study but; because they have not understood the full implications of the Trinity doctrine. When provided further evidence all but a very few quickly accept the Trinity doctrine. So Wikipedia is quite wrong in understanding that this is the standard view of the Adventist Church – in fact it is definitely not. See the quotes under the heading SCRIPTURE STILL DEMANDS THE TRINITY DOCTRINE. Only Adventists who have not properly done their homework could hold to the Tritheistic view intentionally. Adventist non-Trintarians are quite out of order in claiming that a great number of Adventists are Tritheists – this is not truly so and they should understand this to be the case.
Tritheism should also be avoided because it is really a miniature form of Polytheism, a belief in a multiplicity of gods.
When we talk about God we have no alternative than to use human language which was never developed to talk about God. I think it was Augustine who said something like this: "We do not want to say Persons but we have to say Persons otherwise we would be reduced to silence."
You will no doubt appreciate that the Three Persons of the Trinity are not like persons that we encounter in the human realm. But they can best be described as persons for want of a better word. As Augustine implies we have to be silent if we can't talk about God using human words.
4. THE SON OF GOD
Here I can only state briefly what I have explained in other places.
The Bible is really all about the Plan of Redemption – as Milton put it, "From Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained."
Jesus is the person most involved – the Bible is really all about Him..
The Trinity is revealed in the context of the plan for the salvation of mankind.
This has often been described as the Economic Trinity.
Each Member of the Trinity has a part to play.
One Member accepted the role of the Father God in heaven. A second Member agreed to the role of the Messiah who would come to the earth as a man and die for fallen humanity. The third Member would gladly adopt the role of being the invisible friend of mankind. Particularly after Jesus returned to heaven He became our Comforter who would lead us into all truth..
The two key Members involved in the Salvation plan would be seen in a Father/Son relationship. This would be most helpful for the understanding particularly of the humans of the ancient world who recognised that a good son did his father's will and goes on errands on his behalf. This is basically what Jesus did.
Hebrews 1:5 reveals that at some time in the past one Member of the Trinity said to another that He would be a Father to that Member (the pre-incarnate Jesus) and that He would be to Him His Son. Apparently, who would do what was decided upon not long before Creation of planet Earth took place. It seems very likely that it was then that the Father accepted His role and Jesus accepted the role of the Son of God. Revelation 13:8; 2 Timothy 1:9; 1 Peter 1:20; Titus 1:1, 2 seem to indicate the timing of these things. Apparently, at this time of counselling together the Trinity Members devised the Plan of Salvation and the roles they would each play in bringing about its accomplishment..
Jesus performed many roles in the plan of salvation. He was the Angel of the Lord, Michael the archangel, The Lamb of God, the Mediator between God and man, Our Great High Priest, Our Advocate, our Judge, and the list goes on. Many prominent Adventists have acknowledged the truth of role playing – Holbrook, Spangler, Jensen, and Adams. The following quotes are from the book Seventh-day Adventists Believe, pages 30 and 31:
"Within the godhead an economy of function exists. God does not unnecessarily duplicate work. Order is the first law of heaven, and God works in orderly ways. This orderliness issues from and preserves the union within the godhead. The Father seems to act as source, the Son as mediator, and the Spirit as actualizer or applier."
"In the economy of function, different members of the Godhead perform distinct tasks in saving man."
Some anti-Trinitarians have been known to try and make fun of the claim that acts and roles are performed by Members of the Trinity. These are serious acts and roles and should not be the source of jests by those who want to oppose the Trinity doctrine. When we say, "We have a part to play" we are not being foolish about it.
SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST SEMI-ARIANS
Unfortunately, some uninformed people have claimed that the Trinity doctrine is a doctrine developed by the Roman Catholic Church at Nicea. Some are fooled by this claim but it is easily refuted as the following from page 706 of The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1974, certifies:
"The council was hardly representative of the Western Church. Of some 300 bishops present, almost all were from the Eastern half of the Empire. The Latin West seems to have been represented by four or five bishops, and two priests delegated by the bishop of Rome."
Modern day Adventist Semi-Arians provide evidence that when they are down on the Trinity doctrine they are not up to date with available modern Scholarship. It is an error to teach that Jesus was "only begotten" because of the false rendering of the word monogenes found at John 3:16, AV.
Seventh-day Adventists who are interested in being informed of up to date scholarship ought to take notice of the Biblical Research Institute document The Only One Unique by Angel Manual Rodriguez. He states concerning monogenes, "When the term is used to describe Jesus, it simply means 'unique,' or 'one and only.' It describes the uniqueness of His nature."
They also should note the comment found on page 65 of the book Seventh-day Adventists Believe published by Pacific Press in 2005 for the General Conference Ministerial Association:
"the Greek word monogenes and reveals that its range of meaning extends to 'only' or 'unique,' depicting a special relationship, not an even in time."
See also Raymond E Brown in The Anchor Bible, The Gospel According to John (i-xii) Doubleday Garden City NY 1966, "Literally the Greek means 'of a single [monos] kind [genos]'."
Newman and Nida in their A Translator's Handbook on the gospel of John, United Bible Societies, New York, 1980, were able to confidently state on page 24: "There is no doubt regarding the meaning of the Greek word used here (monogenes); it means 'only' and not 'only begotten'." Other authorities could also be cited.
Mono obviously means something like "one," however, genes is not derived from gennao to beget, but from genos, a kind or class. Therefore, monogenes should be translated something like "unique" or "only." Some Scholars have pointed out that if a Bible writer wanted to say only begotten he could have used the Greek word monogennetos – see Moulton and Milligan.
JEROME AND HIS LATIN VULGATE
A revealing fact of history relates to Jerome (347-419 A.D.) and his treatment of the subject in his Latin Vulgate. He translated monogenes as unicus, just as the old Latin versions had done, except when he came to monogenes references to Jesus. Then he substituted for unicus the word unigenetes which means only begotten. The Latin Vulgate was the standard Bible of the Roman Catholic Church during the middle ages and it had a great influence on the translators of the King James Version and the error of translating monogenes as only-begotten was perpetuated in John 3:16. The error of translating monogenes was carried through the Reformation into the Protestant King James Version - John 3:16 - and the Protestant Churches. Modern Scholarship has exposed the error and shown that the true rendering of the word is something like only or unique.
I confess that I am not at all happy with what went on concerning monogenes back in the early Christian centuries. The following charitable suggestion has been made by Wayne Grudem:
"it is not impossible that the Nicene fathers in A.D. 325 and 381would have understood monogenes to include the idea of 'begetting' since the word is used several times elsewhere to refer to someone who is an 'only' child and the idea of begetting could commonly be assumed to be present.' Systematic Theology, IVP, Leicester. 1994 page 1233.
Rightly or wrongly I am afraid that I am far from as charitable as Grudem on this matter. I also condemn Jerome for his later fiddling with the Word of God in his Latin Vulgate as well. These people have caused untold harm to the image and cause of God over many of the Christian centuries.
THE CHURCHES TODAY
Unfortunately, the Catholic Church maintains the old distorted rendering today, as do some Protestants still. It is also surprising and very unfortunate that some Seventh-day Adventists have confused themselves with the error. They distribute literature which supports the falsehood and they attack our Church because it denies it. It is to be regretted that these members have not progressed theologically from where the early Christians, mentioned on page 3, were. Actually, they have regressed by accepting the Nicene only begotten concept for Jesus giving Him an origin which denies His being truly eternal. They have painted themselves into a corner on the question and rather than accept the truth, they too try to maintain the error. They would be much better advised to dispose of the error, admit their mistakes, and return to the Trinitarianism of the Bible and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
So here we are – down at the end of time. The Christian Church commenced with confusion on the Trinity doctrine. Has the subject been clarified for all today? Regrettably no. We have many groups still hostile to the doctrine. The web is well charged with champions for all sorts of things endeavouring to undermine the doctrine. Nevertheless, Bible believers must continue on faithful to God and His cause.
SCRIPTURE STILL DEMANDS THE TRINITY DOCTRINE TODAY
The Scriptural grounds for the Trinity doctrine are not difficult to discern. The Father is God, Jesus (the Son) is God, and the Holy Spirit is a Person who is God. Emphatically the Bible demands that there is only One God by Nature. The inevitable conclusion then is that the Three are all incorporated in the One God. Surely, you might say, the Three must all be included in whatever the True God is. It has commonly been described this way – the Three are all included in the One Divine Substance or Essence of God. This does not mean that there are Three that all have the same sort of Divine Substance. That would mean there are Three gods – often referred to as Tritheism. No the Three all exist in the One Divine Substance or Essence. A representative statement revealing this concept within Adventism is that of Dr. Raoul Dederen:
"the term Trinity has been found a most fitting way of referring to the one God who has revealed Himself in the Scriptures as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The concept suggests that within the one essence of the Godhead we are to distinguish three persons who are neither three parts nor three modes of God, but coequally and coeternally God." The Mystery of the Trinity, page 8, Adventist Review, August 26, 1993.
Dederen made a somewhat similar statement in Reflections on the Doctrine of the Trinity, page 16, Andrews University Seminar Studies, Vol. VIII, No. 1, January 1970:
we must confess that the trinity is one indivisible God and that the distinctions of the persons do not destroy the divine unity. This unity of God is expressed by saying that he is one substance. Nevertheless, in the divine unity there are three co-eternal and co-equal persons, who, though distinct, are the One undivided and adorable God. This is the doctrine of Scripture.
Dr. Ekkehardet Mueller of the General Conference Biblical Research Institute stated the following in 2008:
We do not believe in three Gods but one God in three persons. These three personalities participate in one substance. In the divine unity there are three coeternal and coequal persons, who, though distinct, are the one undivided God. Reflections page 9, the Biblical Research Institute for July 2008.
In 2005 the Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists published Seventh-day Adventists Believe (a book on the 28 Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists). On page 51 we read the following:
"His statement 'I and my Father are one' (John 10:30) sets forth the claim that he was of 'one substance' with the Father, 'Possessing the same attributes.'"
The evil one is undoubtedly behind the confusion that exists even still today. He will continue to confuse, undermine, ridicule and frustrate attempts to bring all to a true understanding of Scripture on the Nature of God. What can we who love our Lord so dearly and value the Trinity doctrine do? We can only continue our endeavours to most sincerely honour God by remaining steadfast in our devotion to Him and to His Holy Word. We must continue to advertise the truth on the subject and pray continually that God will be honoured and supported by truth.
My recommendation to you dear reader is, if you are a faithful Adventist, keep on defending the faith. Be prepared to give to all an answer in favour of the true faith we share. If you are an opponent of the Church and its Trinity doctrine, please put aside any hostile literature and attitudes you have and give what Scripture reveals about God a fair go. "Let God be true and every man a liar" – Romans 3:4. To God be the Glory!
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