THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY (1)
THE HISTORY OF THE DOCTRINE
The historic Christian Faith has been from the earliest times, in the history of the Church, Trinitarian. While Tertullian was the first to use the term “Trinity” the doctrine did not become defined within the creeds of the Church until the Nicene Creed was formulated at the Council of Nicene and Constantinople (325AD and 381AD). This was due to the teachings of Arius who taught that the Son of God was inferior to the Father and not His equal. Arius’s theology gained widespread support throughout Christendom. It was the Egyptian Bishop, called Athanasius who fought a principled battle against the teachings of Arius claiming that the Scriptures taught that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were in fact one God but three distinct persons. Athanasius ultimately won the battle and it was largely through him that God preserved Trinitarian doctrine as the orthodox creed of the Church. The key phrases of the Nicene Creed are:
“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all that is unseen. We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, one in Being with the Father…We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.”
THE ALTERNATIVES TO THE TRINITY
Arianism takes it’s name from Arius, the Priest whose teachings were rejected by the Church in the 4th Century. The theology of Arianism teaches that there is one person who is God and he created His Son as a chief among the angels and it was He who came into the world as a man. The Son in turn created the Holy Spirit as a godly influence in the world. Arianism today is most commonly seen in the work of the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Russellites, so named after their founder Charles Taz Russell.
Unitarianism is a form of teaching that entered Irish Presbyterianism but was expelled by the Synod Of Ulster in 1829. Unitarianism is a variant of Arianism, known as Socinianism. Socinus was an Italian theologian (1539 – 1604) who went further than Arius by claiming that the Son of God began living when he was born of Mary. He had no pre-existence. While Socinus did hold to the Virgin Birth, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, his followers in the Unitarian camp have denied even these truths. In so doing they take Socinus’ claims to their logical conclusion. If Jesus had no pre-existence then he was a mere man and if he was a mere man all of the miraculous associated with him could not have occurred.
Arianism and Unitarianism and the Gospel
When the Trinity is attacked, the Person of Christ as the Second Person of the Trinity also comes under scrutiny. Where the Person of Christ is relegated from His position as the Second Triune Person to that of an angel or a mere man, the doctrine of salvation likewise is questioned. Redemption is based upon God offering up His Son as the only sacrifice for sin. He is Mediator because He is God and man. As God He offered the perfect sacrifice and makes intercession for us. As man He took our place becoming our substitute. It is only when the natures of deity and humanity are fused together in this one person that salvation becomes possible. Therefore to deny the Trinity and in denying the Deity of Christ and His Virgin Birth is to cut down the great Gospel tree. Therefore it should be of no surprise to us to discover that where Arianism and Unitarianism exist the Gospel is not preached. The Jehovah Witnesses propagate a message based entirely upon good works. The Unitarians deny the blood atonement and the necessity of the new birth.
By the middle of the 20th Century Irish Presbyterianism was in a state of spiritual darkness. There was little Gospel preached from the pulpits of the church that was so mightily used, in the previous century, in the revival of 1859. Why did Irish Presbyterianism decline so markedly from such an honoured place in our evangelical history? The response is captured by the life and teachings of James Ernest Davey. Being the youngest person ever to receive a chair in the Irish Presbyterian College, in 1917, he was regarded as a brilliant scholar. Tragically Davey, who served as Moderator in 1954, was a liberal in theology who perjured the Westminster Standards to which he subscribed as a profession of his faith. Among his many errors was his rather shocking view of Jesus Christ:
“There is no omnipotent or omniscient and independent Christ in John any more than in any other Gospel…And today we are in a providential reaction against a wrong headed idealisation of Christ as a kind of God or demigod (not the God-man) stalking through life clothed with all the infinite attributes of the Godhead in eternity and living on a different plane from us.”
Davey’s opinion that the deity of Christ was a “wrong headed idealisation” led him to the view that the blood atonement was likewise a delusion:
“Sin could never be transferred…Protestantism has unwittingly, done exactly the same thing. The centre of it’s orthodox system of atonement resting upon the theory of imputation which is only another form of transubstantiation.”
With such a man teaching young men training for ministry, for a generation, is it any wonder that Irish Presbyterianism sank into such spiritual darkness that has left it’s mark within the liberal and ecumenical wing of the denomination. When the opportunity arose in 1927 to deal with Professor Davey at the famous heresy trial within the Belfast Presbytery and the subsequent appeal at the General Assembly, there were few who were willing to take their stand and so unbelief corrupted the church as gangrene attacks the human body (2nd Timothy 2:17). What is rather sobering for every denomination is the rapid decline that Irish Presbyterianism experienced in 60 years. Within this time span that Church has gone from revival to false and heretical doctrine being taught in the college.
“Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.”
(1st Corinthians 10:12)
Sabellius was a 3rd Century African Bishop whose teachings were rejected by the Church. Sabellianism taught that God is one single person. He operates, however, in three modes. As a Father He is the sovereign Creator and Governor. As a Son He revealed himself himself to men as the Redeemer. As the Holy Spirit He works personally in the lives of men and women. Therefore the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are essentially the same person. In the 20th Century Sabellianism reappeared among Pentecostal Churches who embraced the “Oneness Doctrine”.
Apart from the fact that Sabellianism was rejected by the Church we must be clear in our own minds as to the true teaching of the Scripture on what is a most vital and basic doctrine. Does God exist in the one essence as three persons or is he three revelations of the one person? Has the Church been wrong since New Testament times to define itself as a Trinitarian?
As with Arianism and Unitarianism, Sabellianism also present challenges to the Gospel, which the holders of the “Oneness Doctrine” have , perhaps unwittingly, exposed themselves to. Jesus Christ is our Mediator. He mediates between God the Father and men as a separate person ever living to make intercession. He is not just separate in his intercession but in His offering, presenting himself to the Father as a sacrifice for sin. If He is the same person as the Father, how does He mediate, with himself? It strikes me that this strikes at the heart of the New Testament revelation of the Gospel.
Scriptures to Ponder
Deuteronomy 6:4; 1st Corinthians 8:6, John 1:1-3, John 15:26, Acts 5:3-4.
One God; The Son is equal with the Father, the Holy Spirit is a person who is God.
In the next study we will examine the doctrine of the Trinity is more detail looking at definitions and scriptural proofs for this fundamental doctrine of Christianity.