From time to time, I receive emails pertaining to particular issues of theology and faith. I received an email not long ago from an individual, who I thought was associated with my own particular denomination, who claimed that the Bible does not support the view of the Trinity and was…in his opinion…an invention of Emperor Constantine in the 300s. Most will acknowledge that Constantine was the emperor of Rome in the 300s A.D. who legalized Christianity. The opponent of the Trinity and I discussed the issues from a biblical perspective. The gentleman made some bizarre claims throughout our conversation. However, did the Council of Nicaea confirm the truth pertaining to the Triune nature of God, or was this an invention of the council purported by the emperor?
Background Concerning Council of Nicaea
While it is difficult to ascertain a thorough view of what the early church fathers believed about the Triune nature of God, reading the documents of the early church fathers, one would tend to believe that an orthodox view of the Trinity was largely supported. While some believe that the view of the Trinity stemmed from Constantine, history demonstrates the view was clearly held far before the time of the Council of Nicaea. Polycarp (c. 70-155), a disciple of John the apostle, wrote “May the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ Himself, who is the Son of God, and our everlasting priest, build you up in faith and truth” (Polycarp, EPE XII). Irenaus, a disciple of Polycarp, wrote, “in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit” (Irenaus, ANF X.1). John Feinberg notes, Tertullian, who lived circa A.D. 160-225, “first coined the term ‘Trinity’ (trinitas) and used the concept of persons. Both Tertullian and Hippolytus are credited with introducing the idea of the ‘economic’ Trinity, which emphasizes how the persons in the Godhead relate to one another in their work of creation and redemption” (Feinberg, NOLH, 473). Later, Origen (c. A.D. 185-254) also advocated a somewhat orthodox view of the Trinity, although he somewhat fell into an error that is termed “tritheism.” Tritheism is the “belief that there are three gods or three separate beings in the Godhead” (Feinberg, NOLH, 553). It was, however, the heresy of Arius (c. A.D. 250-336), a bishop of Alexandria, that for the need of a council to be formed. Contrary to the traditionally orthodox teachings of the church concerning the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, Arius purported that that Jesus was less than eternal and was not equal with Yahweh (the Father). Moreover, Arius also purported that the Holy Spirit was a “lesser ‘God,’ if divine at all” (Feinberg, NOLH, 478). At 325 A.D., Athanasius headed the movement to promote orthodox Christian teachings against the heresy of Arius. Athanasius won as the Bible supported the classic view of the Trinity and Arius’ view (which is much like the modern Jehovah Witness movement) was defeated. It is of an interesting note that the historical St. Nicolas of Patara was said to have been in attendance at this council and was asked to leave due to Nicolas slugging the heretic Arius in the heat of debate. No, it was not a Christ-like move, but it demonstrates the intensity of the debate. (For more information concerning St. Nicolas of Patara see https://pastorbrianchilton.wordpress.com/2012/12/10/the-real-saint-nicholas-parental-warning-the-truth-is-revealed/). Was Constantine associated with this conference? He was only in the calling of the conference. The matter of the Trinity had become so heated that he wanted the elders of the church to settle the issue, especially as Christianity was now made a legal religion. The elders settled the issue once and for all at this council. However, the matter of the Trinity would be fine-tuned over time. Regardless, one must still ask, what does the Bible say concerning the Trinity?
Biblical Support for Trinity
The Bible demonstrates the divinity of the three persons classically held to be in the Triune Godhead.
Yahweh is God
In Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus teaches the disciples that the Father would care for their every need. Concerning needs, Jesus states that “your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matthew 5:32). In Matthew 27:46, Jesus quotes Psalm 22:1 addressing the Father in stating that “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In the Old Testament, Yahweh is clearly demonstrated as God. When Moses asked God who He was, God replied, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you’… Yahweh, the God of your fathers…has sent me to you. This is My name forever; this is how I am to be remembered in every generation” (Exodus 3:14-15, HCSB). Norman Geisler writes that the function of the Father within the Triune Godhead is “manifest that His function is superior to that of the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father, for example, is presented as the Source, Sender, and Planner of salvation” (Geisler, ST, 549).
Jesus is God
Jesus is also noted as being divine. In John 10:30, Jesus boldly proclaims, “I and the Father are one.” Paul preserves an ancient Christian hymn in Philippians 2. Of particular interest is the statement “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6). It is difficult to fathom how this verse could be interpreted as anything different than the early church held that Jesus was divine. This is compounded by the fact that this hymn dates to within a few years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Paul preserves another ancient formulation in Colossians 1. Paul records the creedal formulation as, pertaining to Christ, that “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation…For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:15, 19). The writer of Hebrews notes that “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature, sustaining all things by His powerful word. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3-4, HCSB). Addressing the role of the Son in the Triune Godhead, Geisler denotes that Jesus is “the Means, Sent One, and Achiever of salvation” (Geisler, ST, 549).
Holy Spirit is God
The third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is clearly identified as divine in Acts 5 where Ananias and Sapphira lie to the Holy Spirit, who is referenced as God. Feinberg provides clear-cut evidence that the Holy Spirit holds the attributes of God in writing that “where the Holy Spirit is declared to be God, we also find that he has the attributes only God could have. He is eternal (Heb 9:14); omniscient (1 Cor 2:10-11…); powerful (Rom 8:2; 15:19); and truth (1 John 5:7)…He regenerates…(John 3:5-8); he sanctifies…(1 Pet 1:2); and he reveals God’s truth…(2 Pet 1:21; 1 Cor 2:12-13)” (Feinberg, NOLH, 465). Addressing the role of the Holy Spirit in the Triune Godhead, Geisler denotes that the Holy Spirit is the “Applier of salvation to believers” (Geisler, ST, 549). Thus, one will note the divine nature of the Holy Spirit.
Unity of Three
John Feinberg writes that one finds in the Hebrew within the Old Testament a “linguistic phenomenon [in] the use of plural pronouns to refer to God in various passages” (Feinberg, NOLH, 449). At the baptism of Jesus, one will note the plurality of the members of the Godhead and their divine nature as they are presented in Matthew 3:13-17.
While it took several councils to understand the biblical role of the Triune nature of God, the evidence of the Trinity in the Bible is undeniable. So, along with the early church, one can accept the Nicene Creed which states:
“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and 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 from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son], who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.” (taken from http://christianity.about.com/od/christiandoctrines/qt/thenicenecreed.htm). (Note: “Catholic” in this context does not refer to the denomination, but rather means “universal.”)
Therefore, the Trinity should be accepted as an important doctrine not due to the fact that the Council of Nicaea ruled in such a fashion, but rather because the biblical evidence supports such a view. Concerning the dialogue between the adversary of the Trinity and I ended with no real progress. However, I did warn him that his current views placed him dangerously on the outskirts of Christianity. Hopefully, with prayer and guidance from God, he will come to a more biblically based notion of God.
© 2015. Brian Chilton.
All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from the English Standard Version. Wheaton: Crossway, 2001.
Feinberg, John. No One Like Him, Foundations of Evangelical Theology. Wheaton: Crossway, 2001.
Geisler, Norman. Systematic Theology: In One Volume. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2011.
Irenaeus. Against Heresies. In The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1885.
Polycarp. Epistle to the Philippians. In The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4. Edited by Alesander Roberts and James Donaldson. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1885.
Scripture noted HCSB comes from the Holman Christian Standard Bible. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2009.