Did Christians “Invent” the Trinity?
Atheists say Christians invented the Trinity. Either that, or Christians “borrowed” (or stole) the idea from other sources. But does this make sense? The Christian Trinity is difficult to believe and impossible to understand. Does it make any sense for Christians to “invent” such a problematic doctrine?
Why would Christians want to invent such a difficult belief? Christianity already is filled with mystery and paradox. Consider some of the confusing statements Jesus said. For example, in Matthew 5: 43-45 Jesus told His disciples:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”(NAS)
This statement separated the teachings of Jesus from those of other religious teachers. “Love your enemies.” “Pray for those who persecute you.” What sort of nonsense is this? Do such statements actually make sense to Christians? Yes, they do. But other teachings from Jesus add to the confusion. Jesus proposed the following riddle in Luke 9: 24:
“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.” (NAS)
What, in heaven’s name, is that supposed to mean?
To make matters worse, Christianity is full of doctrines that are absurd. How can Jesus Christ be fully God and fully man? The God-part would completely dominate the man-part, right? And how could the God part remain fully-God when clothed with the limitations of flesh, time, and space?
And why would God send His Son to earth to suffer and die? We are talking about the Son of God! Isn’t He the King of kings and Lord of lords? (Revelation 19:16) When a divine being makes a visit to earth he should come in power and glory! Right? He should fly to earth in a golden chariot drawn by six fire-breathing horses. His eyes should flash with lightning. His voice should sound like thunder. Suffer and die? How incomprehensible.
The teachings of Jesus Christ are strange and challenging. Why would Christians “invent” another doctrine that is impossible to grasp? There can only be one answer. God really does exist as a Trinity and Christians want people to know the truth about God.
Christians believe that God always existed as a Trinity. God is one Being composed of three persons. That’s the way it always has been. No one “invented” the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity was revealed, not invented. God revealed this to us through the teaching of Jesus Christ and His apostles. This is a central part of mainstream Christianity. So you might wonder . . .
Why Attack the Doctrine of the Trinity?
A successful strategy for battle is to attack an opponent at his weakest point. Or you can focus on a vital organ that is poorly protected—that is, hit him in the head or perhaps in his kidneys. That’s the easy way to take him down. But how does this apply to the Trinity? Why would the Trinity be considered a vital organ that is poorly protected?
As I said earlier, many people, including some Christians, have difficulty believing in the Trinity. But accepting this doctrine is essential if one is to understand Christ’s sacrifice. Christ’s equality with the perfect God is the foundation for His saving ministry. When Jesus Christ suffered and died on the cross, Christians believe God Himself suffered and died for the sins of the world. If Jesus is not fully equal with God—perfected in every way, He is not qualified to redeem us from our sins. The Bible says in Hebrews 5: 8-9
Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation, (NAS)
When we accept the doctrine of the Trinity, we accept Jesus Christ as being fully God. The Christian Trinity portrays Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit as one substance with God the Father. If Jesus Christ is less than God, the Christian Trinity is a lie. If the Trinity is an invention from early Christians, then perhaps Christ is not fully God.
Another objection comes from people who feel the Trinity degrades the unique sovereignty of God. They believe God alone is the Supreme Being. There is no other being—including Jesus—who comes close to God. Others feel the doctrine undermines the unique unity of God. Jews and Muslims believe that God is one God. The most basic statement of Jewish faith—the “John 3:16” of Judaism—is Deuteronomy 6: 4-5 which says,
Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (NAS)
These are good reasons for an enemy to attack the doctrine. The Trinity is closely tied to central Christian doctrines of major importance. The Trinity also it is a difficult and confusing belief. Confusing doctrines are easier to ridicule, weaken, and destroy. What better way to attack the Trinity than by saying Christians invented this belief. Thus atheists can say the Trinity is an invention of men rather than a revelation from God.
One point of attack is to show that Christians “borrowed” the doctrine from Plato. They point to one of the dialogues of Socrates called Timaeus. This dialogue attempts to answer many of the “origin” questions for ancient Greeks. Timaeus explores such questions as the origin and nature of the universe, the creation of gods and men, and the nature of God. Did early Christians develop their Trinity from the trinity mentioned in Timaeus?
Another anti-trinity argument centers on the neo-platonic philosopher Philo. Some of Philo’s writings refer to a kind of trinity. This had led some people to believe Philo “invented” the idea of the triune god. Did early Christians steal the idea of Trinity from Philo?
Other opponents to Christianity search religions for other groupings of three gods. When they find a similar trinity they say, “Aha! Christians did not receive this doctrine from God. They borrowed it from another religion.” In other words, the Christian Trinity was not revealed by God. Christians made it up.
Atheists adopted these arguments. But atheists often create, adopt, or transmit arguments without checking their facts. Are these arguments valid or did are they just another example of poor fact-checking on the part of atheists?
Let’s look at these three possible sources for the Christian Trinity. Earlier I referred to Plato’s dialogue Timaeus. Does this ancient document actually contain an example of a trinity? Is Plato’s trinity similar to the Christian Trinity? Let’s look closer at Timaeus.
The God of Plato’s “Timaeus”
When I was reading Timaeus, it took me a while to find the paragraph in question. Timaeus covers a lot of metaphysical territory. As you read it, you might get the feeling you’re digging through somebody’s garbage can of theological ideas. Christianity agrees with very few, if any, of the ideas found in Timaeus. For example, Timaeus states that the great god made the world a living being and gave it a soul.
God desired that all things should be good and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable. Wherefore also finding the whole visible sphere not at rest, but moving in an irregular and disorderly fashion, out of disorder he brought order, considering that this was in every way better than the other. . . . For which reason, when he was framing the universe, he put intelligence in soul, and soul in body . . . we may say that the world became a living creature truly endowed with soul and intelligence by the providence of God.
OK, the first sentence of that quotation is not too bad. “God desired that all things should be good and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable.” The Bible agrees with that. But there’s nothing in the Bible that says the world has a living soul. That statement is contrary to Christian teaching. Let’s look at another spiritual nugget from Timaeus:
Time, then, and the heaven came into being at the same instant in order that, having been created together, if ever there was to be a dissolution of them, they might be dissolved together.
The Bible says very little about time. Yes, in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1: 1). The Bible also implies there is a difference between our time and God’s eternity. For example, Psalm 90:4 states “For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it passes by, or as a watch in the night.”(NAS) II Peter 3: 8 states, “But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.”(NAS) The Bible and Timaeus both mention time but their statements do not complement each other.
The Mythical World of Timaeus
Plato also mentions in Timaeus the commonly held ancient belief that the material contained in the world is composed of four elements.
Now the creation took up the whole of each of the four elements; for the Creator compounded the world out of all the fire and all the water and all the air and all the earth, leaving no part of any of them nor any power of them outside.
The Bible has nothing to say about this. However, this theory of four elements is not accepted by modern science. Plato also mentions the existence of a mythical continent called Atlantis.
Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia. . . . But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea.
The Bible does not deal with such myths. The continent of Atlantis is unknown to the Bible, to modern science, and to history.
Plato continues: the great god created lesser gods. The lesser gods created the living creatures, including man. Yes, that’s right, there is none of this in the Bible.
Now, when all of them [the gods] . . . had come into being, the creator of the universe addressed them in these words: “Gods . . . now listen to my instructions: Three tribes of mortal beings remain to be created . . . if they were created by me and received life at my hands, they would be on an equality with the gods. In order then that they may be mortal, and that this universe may be truly universal, do ye, according to your natures, betake yourselves to the formation of animals, imitating the power which was shown by me in creating you. . . . make and beget living creatures, and give them food, and make them to grow, and receive them again in death.”
Timaeus also teaches the idea of an afterlife for those who live well.
He who lived well during his appointed time was to return and dwell in his native star, and there he would have a blessed and congenial existence. But if he failed in attaining this, at the second birth he would pass into a woman, and if, when in that state of being, he did not desist from evil, he would continually be changed into some brute who resembled him in the evil nature which he had acquired, and would not cease from his toils and transformations until he followed the revolution of the same and the like within him, and overcame by the help of reason the turbulent and irrational mob of later accretions, made up of fire and air and water and earth, and returned to the form of his first and better state.
So Timaeus does teach about an afterlife for those men who live well. But if you do not live well, you return as a lower form of life—as a woman. Needless to say, this is contrary to the teaching of the Bible. The Bible teaches that all people—both men and women—are equal in the sight of God. Note Galatians 3: 28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (NAS)
Plato’s Version of the Trinity
Regarding the Trinity, the paragraph in question contains the following:
Wherefore also we must acknowledge that there is one kind of being which is always the same, uncreated and indestructible, never receiving anything into itself from without, nor itself going out to any other, but invisible and imperceptible by any sense, and of which the contemplation is granted to intelligence only. And there is another nature of the same name with it, and like to it, perceived by sense, created, always in motion, becoming in place and again vanishing out of place, which is apprehended by opinion and sense. And there is a third nature, which is space, and is eternal, and admits not of destruction and provides a home for all created things, and is apprehended without the help of sense, by a kind of spurious reason, and is hardly real . . . Thus have I concisely given the result of my thoughts ; and my verdict is that being and space and generation, these three, existed in their three ways before the heaven.
If atheists and non-Trinitarian Christians are correct, early Christians waded through all the muck of false belief in Timaeus before plucking this one concept that vaguely resembles the Christian Trinity. Why? I cannot think of any reasonable answer to their unfounded and foolish assumption. Early Christians believed Jesus Christ is God. Jesus said in John 10:30, “I and the Father are one.” (NAS)
Plato said this second “nature” is “apprehended by opinion and sense.” Many early Christians walked with Jesus. They knew Jesus Christ as God and also as man. Others were taught by these eyewitnesses. They never would accept Plato’s doctrine. It was part of an essay filled with foolishness. And it did not accurately reflect the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
The British historian Edward Gibbon in volume II, chapter XX, of The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire wrote the following regarding Plato and the Christian Trinity:
The genius of Plato . . . had ventured to explore the mysterious nature of the Deity. . . . The vain hope of extricating himself from these difficulties . . . might induce Plato to consider the divine nature under the threefold modification—of the first cause, the reason, or Logos, and the soul or spirit of the universe. . . . the three archical or original principles were represented in the Platonic system as three Gods . . . Such appear to have been the secret doctrines which were cautiously whispered in the gardens of the academy; and which, according to the more recent disciples of Plato, could not be perfectly understood, till after an assiduous study of thirty years.
Gibbon continues with the following statement as a footnote: “In my opinion, there is no Trinity in Plato.” In no part of Plato’s writings do we find a true personification of the three vague concepts from which Plato formed his “trinity.”
The evidence shows Timaeus is not a source for the Christian Trinity. But what about the writings of the Jewish philosopher Philo?
Philo of Alexandria
Philo of Alexandria (AKA Philo Judaeus) was a Jewish philosopher. He lived in Alexandria, Egypt during the time of Christ, from around 25 B.C. to about A.D. 50. He tried to harmonize Plato’s philosophy with Jewish theology. He thought he could give Jewish theology greater appeal to intellectuals in the Roman Empire.
Philo was part of a group of philosophers called the Middle Platonist school of Alexandria. Inspired by the Timaeus, these followers of Plato were excessively focused on ideas of the trinity. According to Gibbon,
The same subtle and profound questions concerning the nature, the generation, the distinction, and the equality of the three divine persons of [Plato’s] mysterious Triad, or Trinity, were agitated in the philosophical and in the Christian schools of Alexandria.
Philo added some ideas from his Jewish background. According to Philo, God revealed Himself as a trinity to Abraham. In Genesis 18 the Bible tells of a day when Abraham was visited by three visitors. Genesis 18: 2-5 states,
When he lifted up his eyes [Abraham] and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My Lord, if now I have found favor in Your sight, please do not pass Your servant by. “Please let a little water be brought and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree; and I will bring a piece of bread, that you may refresh yourselves; after that you may go on, since you have visited your servant.” (NAS)
This is a vision of the Trinity? How did Philo come to that conclusion? I have no idea. But somehow Philo determined this was a vision of God and “His two highest potencies, sovereignty and goodness.” According to Philo:
“For Abraham went with all zeal and speed and eagerness and bade Sarah . . . hasten and knead three measures of meal and make ‘buried’ cakes, when God came attended by His two highest potencies, sovereignty and goodness, and He . . . called up before the eye of the soul . . . three separate visions or aspects. Each of these aspects . . .is the measure of all things. His goodness is the measure of things good, His sovereignty of its subjects, and the Ruler Himself is the measure of all things corporeal and incorporeal, and it is to serve Him that these two potencies assume the functions of rules and standards, and measure what lies within their province. (from The Sacrifices of Abel and Cain)
This is hardly the Christian understanding of the Trinity! These ideas sound more like those from Plato and Timaeus. Philo explains in greater depth in another of his works:
“. . . while God is indeed one, His highest and chiefest powers are two, even goodness and sovereignty. Through His goodness He begat all that is, through His sovereignty He rules what He has begotten. And in the midst between the two there is a third which unites them, Reason [Logos], for it is through reason [Logos] that God is both ruler and good. (from On the Cherubim)
This is another example of Philo’s “Trinity.” It sounds nothing like the Trinity of the New Testament or of early Christian theologians. Did early Christianity adopt the belief in the Trinity based on the writings of Philo? Not in the least. However, Philo may have provided some of the ideas that developed into a major Christian heresy during the Third Century A.D. This is the heresy of Arianism.
Arianism—Christ is Not Fully God
Arianism is the belief that Jesus is not fully equal to God. Jesus is distinct and separate from God—a different substance. Some Arians believe Jesus was the first creation of God. Others believe He was an emanation from God, like an avatar. Arians do not believe in a Trinity because Jesus and God are not equal.
Arianism was started by a Christian named Arius (hence the name of the doctrine). He lived in Alexandria from around A.D. 250-336. However, Philo may have contributed to this belief through his writings. Consider this excerpt from Philo’s essay “Who is the Heir of Divine Things?”
“And the Father who created the universe has given to his archangelic and most ancient Word a pre-eminent gift, to stand on the confines of both, and separate that which had been created from the Creator. And this same Word is continually a suppliant to the immortal God on behalf of the mortal race, which is exposed to affliction and misery; and is also the ambassador, sent by the Ruler of all, to the subject race. And the Word rejoices in the gift, and, exulting in it, announces it and boasts of it, saying, ‘And I stood in the midst, between the Lord and you’ neither being uncreated as God, nor yet created as you, but being the midst between these two extremities, like a hostage, as it were, to both parties. (from “Who is the Heir of Divine Things” by Philo).
This is the “Word,” according to Philo. He is not equal to God. Like the Holy Spirit, this Logos bears the role of an intercessor between God and man. However, the Logos is a creation of God. Philo refers to him as an angelic hostage between God and man.
The Bible describes the heavenly ministry of Jesus in terms that are far better. For example, in Hebrews 1: 3-4 the Bible says this regarding Jesus:
And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they.(NAS)
Compare this statement to that of Philo regarding the Logos:
“. . .for the word of God is over all the world, and is the most ancient, and the most universal of all the things that are created.” (from “Allegorical Interpretation” by Philo)
Arianism quickly spread throughout the Roman Empire. It also affected Christian belief beyond the Roman Empire in places like Persia, India, and Ethiopia. Nor did Christian belief among the Germanic tribes escape the poison of this heresy. One tribe, the Vandals, actively suppressed Christians who were not Arians. The Vandals used torture and execution to enforce their Arian belief.
This heresy caused tremendous disruption in the church. The Roman Emperor Constantine called the general first church council to deal with the problem. This council convened at Nicea, a city near Istanbul. In A.D. 325 the Council of Nicea affirmed that Jesus and God are of one substance. They wrote the Nicene Creed as the result of their labors. Note the strong emphasis on the person of Jesus Christ in the second paragraph.
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
What happened to Arianism? According to Gibbon,
But the cause of Arianism was gradually suppressed by the weight of truth, of interest, and of example; and the controversy, which Egypt had derived from the Platonic school, was terminated, after a war of three hundred years, by the final conversion of the Lombards of Italy. Vol III, Chap XXXVII, Part IV, footnote 134
Arian centers in Persia, North Africa, and Alexandria failed to redevelop following the Muslim conquests of the 7th and 8th Centuries.
Philo’s description of the trinity was not “borrowed” by Christianity. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity was totally different from Philo’s. Philo did not add to the understanding of the Christian Trinity. However, his ideas may have added fuel to the fire of Arianism.
Three Gods in Other Religions
Finally, we arrive at a third argument regarding the trinity. Namely, the Christian Trinity was inspired by nothing more than the three god beliefs from other religions. Even some Christians stick with the belief the Trinity was “invented.”
An example of these arguments can be seen in a web page titled “Trinity—Fact or Fiction?” This was written by Ken Allen, a non-Trinitarian Christian, at http://www.auburn.edu/.
One idea that became popular among Christians around the fourth century was that of a trinity of gods. It was not, however, a new idea conceived by Christians, for there is much evidence of widespread belief in similar ideas throughout earlier recorded history . . .
In Indian religion there is the Trinitarian group of Brahma, Vishna, and Shiva; in Egyptian religion there is the group of Kneph, Phthas, and Osiris. . . . In Greece they were Zeus, Poseidon, and Aidoneus. In Rome they were Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto. . . . in Germanic nations they were called Thor, Wodan, and Fricco.
Trinities of gods existed in other cultures as well, including, but not limited to, those of Siberia, Persia, Japan, Scandinavia, and Mexico.
We can see, therefore, that although the Trinity is characteristic of the Christian religion, it is by no means peculiar to it.
How can we respond to this? First, similarity does not prove Christian copying. Dale Tuggy wrote the following in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for the topic “History of Trinitarian Doctrines:”
Similarity alone doesn’t prove Christian copying or even indirect influence, and many of these examples are, because of their time and place, unlikely to have influenced the development of the Christian doctrine of the trinity.
The borrowing or copying of an idea is very difficult to prove. For example, take the case of Philo’s influence on Arianism (see the section above). We cannot say Philo’s ideas caused Arianism or that Arius copied Philo’s theories. Because these similar ideas arose in the same place (Alexandria) from two men who were familiar with Neoplatonism, we can say there is a high likelihood that Philo influenced Arius. None of the writings of Arius survived. There is no proof of direct influence from one to the other.
There is no proof the three god features of other religions had any effect on the doctrine of the Christian Trinity. Why? None of the sets of three gods named above are even remotely similar to the Christian Trinity. Each triad is part of a polytheistic belief system. The Christian Trinity does not establish Christianity as a polytheistic system. Christians believe in one god. This one God has revealed Himself as three Persons. The Trinity does not consist of three gods.
The three god sets named above are parts of long lists of gods. The gods are parts of large families containing dozens or even hundreds of gods. Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto are probably the best known. These gods are three brothers. They were the victors in a war among the gods that took place a long time ago. Since the spoils of war go to the victors, the brothers divided the world between them. Jupiter took control of the land. Neptune ruled the seas. Pluto was god of the underworld. There is nothing similar between the Trinity and these three gods.
The Hindu group of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva are perhaps closer to the Christian trinity. The following information is taken from the web site “hindunet.org.” *
The Hindu trinity is of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. They are respectively the creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe. They are also aligned as the transcendent Godhead, Shiva, the cosmic lord, Vishnu and the cosmic mind, Brahma. . . . The trinity represents the Divine in its threefold nature and function. Each aspect of the trinity contains and includes the others.
This Hindu trinity seems closer to Philo or Plato than to the Christian belief.
Did Christians “invent” the Trinity by borrowing from the ideas of others? The Christian Trinity did not arise from the ideas examined here.
Why would anyone even say that Christians borrowed or stole the idea of trinity? They may want to weaken the credibility of Christianity. False teachers and enemies of Christianity come up with all sorts of ideas to weaken the faith and those who believe it. The Trinity is one place to start.
Why would anyone want to weaken Christian doctrine or belief? There are a variety of motives for wanting to weaken Christian belief. For now it is enough to realize that Jesus foretold the coming of false teachers. Jesus compared them to thieves who only want to lead others astray. Jesus spoke of them in John 10:10 where He said,
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (NAS)
Many false teachers only want to steal our joy in Christ, kill our belief in Him, and destroy His good work in our lives. Others are skeptics. Having no firm foundation on which to rest, they want to destroy the rock on which others rest. They only want to sow seeds of doubt and despair. After looking for superficial similarities, they use lies and half-truths to confuse those who believe. As Christians we need to adhere to the truth rather than being confused by their poor scholarship. We may want to say with Blaise Pascal,
“If you hardly care about knowing the truth, that is enough to leave you in peace, but if you desire with all your heart to know it, you have not looked closely enough at the details. . . . after superficial reflection of this kind we amuse ourselves.”
The Trinity was not “invented” by Christians. It was revealed to us through the teachings of Jesus Christ.
*I know nothing about this web site. Quoting it as a source should not serve as an endorsement of the site.