Historical and Biblical Basis for the Trinity
“Constantine gave you the Trinity.” Sami Zaatari
There are many erroneous assertions and arguments made by people that seek to undermine the historicity and Biblical validity of the doctrine of the Trinity. Critics assert that there is no historical or Biblical basis for this belief. Many will go so far as to say the Roman Emperor Constantine invented the Trinity in the 4th century – a view not held by any serious scholars or historians. In this paper I will build a historical case for the antiquity of the doctrine of the Trinity and then build a Biblical basis for the doctrine as well.
Explanation of the Trinity
The doctrine of the Trinity maintains that the Scriptures teach that there is one God – one being, nature or essence of God. This one being of God, based on Scripture, is shared by three eternally distinct persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These three persons who make up the one being of God are co-eternal, co-equal, interdependant, and in perfect harmony or unity with every sovereign choice or action they make. This is unlike any other concept of God. They are unified in their essence, nature or substance (what they are) but distinct in their person (who they are). This is the doctrine of the Trinity and it is the only consistent Biblical belief to maintain if you want to be true to all of what Scripture says.
Historical Basis for the Trinity
There is not a shred of evidence that the Roman Emperor Constantine invented this concept in the 4th century and no one has ever produced any. What Emperor Constantine did do is halt the persecution of the Christian people by legalizing Christianity in the Roman Empire.1 This occurred in 313 A.D. Before Constantine reigned, Christianity was illegal and persecuted for the first 300 years of Christian history. Constantine also summoned the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. due to the Arian Controversy. Arius (A.D. 256-336), although affirming the divinity of Jesus as an exalted creature, went against orthodoxy and argued that Jesus was the first creation, and hence, not truly God. He was a very persuasive speaker and had deceived many Christians in the Roman Empire. This caused major division among the Christians throughout the Roman Empire since Jesus’ deity was the popular understanding, as I will show. Therefore, 220 Bishops (elders of churches) from all over the world were summoned to consider the issue in this Council. The Bishops gathered and there was a vote as to whether or not Jesus was the first creation or if He was God. Out of the 220 Bishops that assembled to vote, all but two of them affirmed that Arius’s teachings were wrong and that the deity of Jesus was Biblical. Hence, the Council condemned Arianism as a heresy, which many had already done, and affirmed Jesus’ deity in the Nicene Creed.2 After Nicaea, Christians like Athanasius and Augustine refuted Arius’ teaching in numerous works arguing from Scripture. These myths and legends about Constantine inventing the Trinity are not to be found in history or scholarship. There is, however, much evidence that the doctrine of the Trinity was believed in long before Arius came along and long before the Council of Nicaea. The doctrine of the Trinity was widely held in pre-Nicene Christendom while Rome was still persecuting the Christians.
In 180 A.D. Theophilus the Bishop of Antioch wrote:
“In like manner also the three days which were before the luminaries, are types of the Trinity, of God, and His Word, and His wisdom.”3
Notice, Theophilus uses the three days prior the creation of the stars as being analogous to the nature of God in that while there were three days, which is a type of Trinity or “trias” (Greek), there are three in the God-head; the Father (commonly called God to safeguard His distinction from the Son and Spirit as well as his authority), His Word which is Jesus, and His wisdom the Holy Spirit. This is Trinitarian language in the 2nd century. What is deduced from this is that Theophilus, being the Bishop of church in Antioch (modern day Antakya, Turkey), having the sphere of influence that he had, shows that many of those in 2nd century Turkey affirmed this Trinitarian concept.
Irenaeus, Bishop of Lugdunum (A.D. 115-202) wrote a popular work called ‘Against Heresies’ around 180 A.D. affirming:
“For with Him were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, by whom and in whom, freely and spontaneously, He made all things, to whom also He speaks, saying, “Let Us make man after Our image and likeness.”4
Here Irenaeus affirms the eternality of the members of the God-head, their role in creation and their distinction in person-hood with the phrase “with Him were always present.” This indicates a distinction in person-hood since the Son and the Spirit are with the Father. This is not something someone would say if they believed the Son and Spirit were the same person as the Father. Irenaeus was Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, modern day Lyons, France and thus his influence as elder of this church ensures that this Trinitarian belief was held by many in modern France in the late 2nd century.
Hippolytus of Rome (A.D. 170-236) wrote the following in his work ‘Against the Heresy of One Noetus’ in the early 3rd century:
“See, brethren, what a rash and audacious dogma they have introduced, when they say without shame, the Father is Himself Christ, Himself the Son, Himself was born, Himself suffered, Himself raised Himself. But it is not so...For who will not say that there is one God? Yet he will not on that account deny the economy (i.e., the number and disposition of persons in the Trinity)… As far as regards the power, therefore, God is one. But as far as regards the economy there is a threefold manifestation… And the blessed John, in the testimony of his Gospel, gives us an account of this economy (disposition) and acknowledges this Word as God, when he says, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. If, then, the Word was with God, and was also God, what follows? Would one say that he speaks of two Gods? I shall not indeed speak of two Gods, but of one; of two Persons however, and of a third economy (disposition), viz., the grace of the Holy Ghost.”5
Hence, Christians in Rome like Hippolytus in the early 200’s A.D. believed that the members of the God head were not one in person-hood but in being – one God, but an economy of three who are distinct in person-hood being together since the beginning. Here Hippolytus clearly rejects Modalism i.e., the Father, Son and Spirit being the same person.
Tertullian (A.D. 160-215) was an African Christian who wrote a work against a Modalist champion Praxeas who believed that God was one in person-hood that just took different modes as Jesus and the Holy Spirit at different times. Tertullian wrote the following around 208 A.D.:
“… in the case of this heresy, which supposes itself to possess the pure truth, in thinking that one cannot believe in One Only God in any other way than by saying that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are the very selfsame Person. As if in this way also one were not All, in that All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons— the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”6
From this we can deduce that Tertullian affirmed that the Father, Son and Spirit are deity. They are not three substances, powers, or conditions; they are of one substance, power and condition, yet three in degree, form and aspect – or in other words three in person-hood. Hence, the three persons are one in substance (nature) yet distinct. It follows then that in the late 2nd and early 3rd century the Trinity was affirmed in Africa, at least by Tertullian, and most likely by contemporary orthodox Christians he was around and later Tertullianists who followed his teachings.
Around 225 A.D. the Egyptian Christian Origen (A.D. 185-254) wrote the following in his work ‘De Principiis’:
“Let no one indeed suppose that we, from having said that the Holy Spirit is conferred upon the saints alone, but that the benefits or operations of the Father and of the Son extend to good and bad, to just and unjust, by so doing give a preference to the Holy Spirit over the Father and the Son, or assert that His dignity is greater, which certainly would be a very illogical conclusion… Moreover, nothing in the Trinity can be called greater or less, since the fountain of divinity alone contains all things by His word and reason, and by the Spirit of His mouth sanctifies all things which are worthy of sanctification ...”7
From this we can deduce that Origen and probably his followers in Egypt affirmed Trinitarian concepts. Origen used the term “Trinity” and seems to believe that the Father, Son and Spirit are distinct in person-hood by using personal pronouns like “He” or “His” when referring to the Spirit in distinction from the Father and Son. The use of such personal pronouns does not prove a distinction in person-hood but it is what we would expect if he did affirm their personal distinction. The Spirit is also omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent in Origen’s view since He sanctifies and indwells all believers around the world and would need the power, knowledge and ability to do so. These are characteristics of God alone.
Much more can be added but it is clear that Constantine did not invent the doctrine of the Trinity. Instead, it has a rich antiquity. Indeed, Christians all over the world from Africa, Alexandria Egypt, modern day France, Rome and modern day Turkey affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity long before Emperor Constantine’s birth in 274 A.D.
Biblical Basis for the Doctrine of the Trinity
Presupposing Monotheism to begin with (belief in one God) and that the Father is deity, I need to demonstrate that the one being of God is shared by the Son and Spirit along with the Father. It must be demonstrated that the Son is eternal and deity but also eternally distinct from the Father and Spirit in person-hood. I must also show that the Spirit is a person with emotions rather than an active force as some suggest, and that He is deity. Once I show this from the Bible the logical conclusion is that there is one God who exists as three eternally distinct persons – one being of God shared by three persons eternally.
Everyone would affirm that the Son is a person and not an active force so it is not necessary to prove Jesus’ person-hood. What must be shown, however, is Jesus’ deity, pre-existent eternality as God and His distinction in person-hood from the Father and Spirit. To demonstrate Jesus’ deity, eternality and distinct person-hood I will provide some proof texts.
The Deity of Jesus and His Distinction in Person-hood from the Father and Spirit
“Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1).
“To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 9:5).
“For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9).
“waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:13)
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-3, 14).
But Jesus answered them, "My Father is working until now, and I am working." This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God…that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. (John 5:17-18, 23)
I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I AM you will die in your sins. (John 8:24)
Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad." So the Jews said to him, "You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?" Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM." So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. (John 8:56-59)
Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, "Whom do you seek?" They answered him, "Jesus of Nazareth." Jesus said to them, "I AM." Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, "I AM," they drew back and fell to the ground. (John 18:4-6)
Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." (John 20:28-29)
Of God Psalm 102:25-27 states:
Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end. (Psalm 102:25-27)
Of Christ Hebrews 1:10-12 states:
And, "You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end." (Hebrews 1:10-12)
For an extensive discussion on the New Testament witness to the deity of Jesus as well as answers to common objections to the proof texts, see my paper “A Case for the Deity of Christ in Light of Muslim Objections.”
Now that we have established the deity and eternality of Jesus being YHWH we must prove that Jesus is distinct from the Father and Spirit in person-hood. The following passages show that Jesus is distinct from the Father in person-hood:
In John 8:13, “The Pharisees therefore said to Him, "You are bearing witness of Yourself; Your witness is not true."
Jesus then appealed to Deuteronomy 19:15 with respect to the testimony of two witnesses being sufficient to affirm truth. Jesus affirms that he was one witness and the Father was the second witness:
"My judgement is true; for I am not alone in it, but I and He who sent Me. Even in your law it has been written, that the testimony of two men is true. I am He who bears witness of Myself, and the Father who sent Me bears witness of Me" (John 8:16-18).
Hence, there are two distinct persons here and thus two real witnesses. If Jesus was the Father in person-hood, as Modalism asserts, there would only be one true witness, not two. Therefore, Jesus is distinct from the Father in person-hood. Moreover, Jesus prays to the Father demonstrating that he is communicating with a distinct person, lest he be praying to His own person, which is absurd:
“Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples" (Luke 11:1).
In summary, Jesus is deity and He is the eternal creator, yet distinct from the Father in person-hood. He is also distinct from the Spirit in person-hood as the baptism recorded in Luke 3:21-22 affirms:
“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased. (Luke 3:21-22)”
Here the three divine members of the God-head are seen as three distinct persons at the same time. The Father is speaking from Heaven, the Spirit is in between coming down from heaven to earth and Son is in the water being baptised. Hence, there are three distinct persons here, not one person of God taking different modes.
The Deity and Person-hood of the Holy Spirit
Now I will provide some texts that demonstrate the deity and person-hood of the Holy Spirit since it has been shown that the Father, Son and Spirit are distinct and that the Father and Son are deity:
“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17).
Here the Spirit is said to be with all believers forever simultaneously – a function of deity since He would have to be all-knowing to know where all the believers are, all-powerful to indwell and help all believers, and omnipresent to be in different places at the same time with all believers. These are characteristics of God alone.
“But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God"” (Acts 5:3-4).
Therefore, when you lie to the Spirit you are lying to God because the Spirit is God. And if the Spirit is just some operative force devoid of personality, emotion and thus person-hood, as anti-Trinitarians like the Jehovah’s Witnesses contend, how can you lie to it? You can’t commit lies against impersonal forces; you can only lie to persons. It would be like me saying I lied to electricity or something of this nature.
“The Spirit of the LORD speaks by me; his word is on my tongue. The God of Israel has spoken; the Rock of Israel has said to me: When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God” (2 Samuel 23:2-3).
Here when the Spirit speaks to David it is YHWH speaking because the Spirit is YHWH. Moreover, speaking is a function of personality as well and hence this text demonstrates the deity and person-hood of the Holy Spirit of God.
“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Here the Lord is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God.
And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:27)
Here the Holy Spirit has a mind and intercedes. Impersonal forces do not have minds and they do not intercede. These are functions of personality and hence demonstrate the person-hood of the Holy Spirit.
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Ephesians 4:30)
Here the Holy Spirit can be grieved. Impersonal forces do not grieve. Only persons with personality and emotion grieve and hence this further demonstrates the person-hood of the Holy Spirit.
In Summary, we have seen that the Scriptures teach that the Holy Spirit is distinct from the Father and the Son. The Spirit indwells and helps all believers which is impossible lest the Spirit be all-knowing, all-powerful, and everywhere having the characteristics of deity. We saw that the Spirit is clearly identified as God Almighty in numerous places. The Spirit shows the functions of personality and thus person-hood in that He has a mind, helps, grieves showing emotion, intercedes showing personal functions, speaks and can be lied to. Thus the Holy Spirit is deity and a distinct divine person.
Contrary to the erroneous assertions of those who try to say that Constantine invented the Trinity or that it was developed hundreds of years after Christ, we saw that the Trinity was the widely held orthodox position of Christians in Africa, modern day France, Rome, modern day Turkey, and Egypt long before Constantine was born. We then documented that the Bible teaches that there is one God existing as three eternally distinct persons refuting the false claim that the Bible doesn’t teach the Trinity. It is my prayer that this material will be useful for those who engage in debate on this issue and that people who do not believe the Trinity will be enlightened and accept the orthodox position.
Christ has Risen, He is Lord.