How the Trinity Is, and Isn't, in the Bible
“The Trinity isn’t in the Bible. It was invented at the council of Nicaea, three centuries after Jesus.” I heard a very intelligent person say this recently, and it certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve heard it. But by now, my reaction to this sort of thing is automatic. I rolled my eyes.
A lot of things said today warrant eye-rolls, whether in the realm of religion, politics, entertainment, or anywhere else public discourse runs its course. Some of those absurdities are easily ignored. But when people speak knowingly about the origins of Christianity without actually knowing much about it, I feel compelled to chime in.
So here’s my chiming for today:
It’s true that arguments about the nature of the Trinity related was a hot topic in the third and fourth centuries. And it’s also true that trinitarian doctrine was defined at councils like that at Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), and Chalcedon (451). This was a huge, long-term theological and philosophical discussion that prompted a variety of views and some dogmatic decrees.
But there is a really big difference between the definition of a belief and its origins. The fourth century and beyond was about terms and definitions. The origins go much further back. Writings and baptism practices from very early (just after 100) refer often to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, even while emphasizing the unity of one God.
From Gospels and Letters
We even see this in the New Testament, where ‘Trinity’ is never mentioned (the word itself came much later) but beliefs about it were already clearly emerging. Jesus referred to the Father’s Spirit and his Spirit as the same; he affirmed that there is only one God worthy of worship but then allowed a disciple to worship him; he said that he and the Father are one; and the deity of Father, Son, and Spirit is extremely prominent in Revelation.
Even people who believe the New Testament writings are unreliable agree that they came quite early. Clearly, obviously, patently this is not a fourth-century development.
The Trinity isn’t the only doctrine treated so carelessly in conversation. I’ve often heard historians talk about ‘new developments’ in theology that are very thoroughly grounded in New Testament writings. These are rarely really the late inventions they are made out to be. Far more often, they are a return to origins.
Why are some people so eager to broad-brush Christian history so casually? Sometimes it’s from unawareness of real historical context. Sometimes it’s driven by an agenda to undermine Christian authenticity, or to antagonize Christians who are likewise unaware of their own faith’s history. And sometimes it’s just someone rationalizing away any responsibility to consider Christian claims carefully. In any case, these broad-brush comments distort the truth.
Why It Matters
These kinds of statements may seem trivial, but when people not entirely familiar with Christian history get the impression again and again that its core beliefs have been constantly changed, or that it is just another example of traditions layered upon traditions, they much more easily dismiss the idea of revelation altogether. In a world in which the idea of truth has been systematically uprooted, it looks like the end of just another root.
It’s true that Christian experience has followed historical developments much as any other religious tradition has. But not its core doctrines. They have been interpreted differently in different places and times, but the original cluster of beliefs as found in the New Testament has not exactly been rewritten — ever.
Why is this important? Because in an age of myriad voices screaming myriad ideas, few of which carry any hint of absoluteness or even reliability, those of us who believe in absolute truth need to present our faith as qualitatively different. It is not just another idea on equal footing with all other historical developments. We believe it is real. In a world where truth is elusive — and, to some, nonexistent — that’s a big deal.