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The Trinity

Much has been written regarding the monotheistic conception of God, particularly as it relates to Judaism and Islam. Skeptics have, however, comparatively little to say about the disguised polytheism of the Christians—their so-called triune godhead. Contrary to what one expects, for instance, neither Michael Arnheim (Is Christianity True?) nor Michael Martin (The Case Against Christianity) touch upon the subject in their books. It may perhaps be that unbelievers, who regard monotheism as irrational, are of the view that trinitarianism is simply more of the same. Strict monotheists, of course, reject the Trinity and accuse the Christians of having violated the monotheism of the Old Testament. But from a rationalist perspective, that cannot be correct. As Isaac Asimov pointed out on p. 9 of his book The Stars and Their Courses: “It is the advantage of mysticism that, having no logical content, it can’t be damaged in any way by any further increase in nonsense, however great.”

Nevertheless, the question that needs to be answered is how the idea of the Trinity originated. Most people think that the authors of the New Testament are responsible for introducing the concept. That is true to a certain extent, but they only created two new gods (namely Jesus and the Holy Ghost or Spirit) in addition to the tribal deity of the Israelites, Yahweh, and never claimed that the three gods were in fact one. The most important passages in this regard are John 1:1-14, Matthew 28:19, and 1 Peter 1:2. There is, however, one Bible verse that declares the three gods to be one but theologians generally reject the authenticity thereof and argue that it did not originally form part of the Bible. The verse in question occurs in the epistle 1 John 5:7. Although most modern translations of the Bible omit the disputed portion of the verse, it is rendered in the King James Bible (1611) as follows: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” The theological consensus is that the phrase, known as the “Comma Johanneum,” was inserted ex post facto. One possibility is that it is a so-called “gloss,” a comment on the text that was made in the margin but was subsequently viewed by others, before the advent of printing, as part of the original manuscript. It can, however, also be an interpolation, a fraudulent insertion designed to give scriptural justification to a Christian dogma which is prima facie in conflict with the first commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

A possible motive for the creation of the troika of gods in the New Testament may be the example set by other religions at the time. As Alexander Waugh explains in his book God, many ancients had a tendency to think in threes and divine triumvirates were accordingly common. Hindus, for instance, believed in the so-called Trimurti; Brahma (the father/creator), Vishnu (the son/preserver) and Shiva (the holy ghost/destroyer) sometimes merged to form a “Avatar Dattatreya.” The Assyrians, in turn, had a three-in-one fertility god called Asher-Anu-Hoa whereas in Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia, the supreme deity Ahura Mazda formed a unit with the gods Aspam Napat and Mithra. Mithraism, of course, was during Roman times a direct competitor with Christianity and had a great deal in common with the latter.

The terminology that is associated with the Trinity is also not unique. Terms such as “God as wisdom” “All-ruling God” and “Holy Spirit” are found in the writings of the Stoic philosopher Seneca who lived shortly before the gospels took shape (4-65 CE).The word “logos” (translated as “Word” in English) which is used in the gospel of John as a synonym for Jesus and also 1 John 5:7 quoted above, has likewise been traced back to the Stoic philosopher Zeno of Citium (342-270 BCE). In Zeno’s writings “logos” means a divine animating principle pervading the universe.

From the outset doctrinal differences existed within the ancient Christian Church regarding the nature of Jesus, the Holy Ghost and their relationship with Yahweh. It is estimated that roughly two thirds of the members of the church were strict monotheists who rejected trinitarianism. Their spokesman was the theologian Arius who maintained that Jesus could not have been a god. Although he conceded that Jesus had been the son of Yahweh, that, Arius contended, did not automatically make him a god. He pointed out by way of analogy that in a number of other religions male gods had impregnated human females but that the children born of such unions were not ipso facto deities. The Greek hero Heracles (Hercules) was for instance never regarded as divine although his father was the chief deity, Zeus, and his mother, Alcmene, a mortal. Arius also refused to accept the claim that the three gods were equal, eternal and of the same stuff. According to him they were merely of similar stuff. He lastly pointed out that Jesus’ appellation “son of God” necessarily implies that Jesus is younger than Yahweh and that he can accordingly not be eternal. Arius was opposed by Athanasius who advocated a trinitarian position. The matter was brought to a head by Roman Emperor Constantine the Great who wished to forestall religious conflict and consequently called a meeting to settle the dispute. Athanasius subsequently triumphed at the Council of Nicea (Nice) held on 20 May 325 where his creed was adopted. Arius, on the other hand, was banished.

A trio of clergy known as the Cappadocian Fathers, namely Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus, afterwards proceeded to put the finishing touches to the Trinity. They decided in essence that the godhead is of the same substance but that it has three separate personalities. Their views were to a large extent influenced by the ideas of the neo-Platonic philosopher and mystic Plotinus (205-270 CE) who was also inclined to think in terms of threes. Plotinus claimed that what he called the “Nous” emanated from God whom he referred to as the “One.” The Nous, in turn, produced to the “World-soul.” These three entities are, according to him, of the same stuff. Individual souls are formed by the World-soul and these souls strive to unite with the One. Although Plotinus was not a Christian, the Cappadocian Fathers were not averse to using his philosophy and employing his terminology in order to complete their concept of the Trinity. The Church later adopted the proposals of the Cappadocian Fathers at the First Council of Constantinople in 381, thereby silencing all dissidents.

Although non-Christians reject the Trinity inter alia because Jesus and the Holy Ghost are not mentioned in the Old Testament, believers have attempted through the years to find passages therein that ostensibly support their view. Paragraph 237 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church claims for instance that “God has left traces of his Trinitarian being in … the Old Testament.” I do not wish to analyse in detail all the verses that have been cited by believers but merely refer to a few of them. They are Genesis 1:26 (the word “our”), Genesis 18:2 (the three men who came to see Abraham), Genesis 19:1-18 (the two men addressed as “my lords” by Lot), Psalm 2:7 (As Isaac Asimov demonstrates in his Guide to the Bible, contrary to what is claimed, the phrase “my son” refers to David and not Jesus), Proverbs 9:1 (“Wisdom”), Isaiah 6:1-3 (particularly the “holy, holy, holy”) and Isaiah 61:1 (the “spirit of the Lord”). The irony is that there are indeed indications in the Old Testament of polytheism but they lend no support to a so-called triune God. One of the verses that prove polytheism is the very same Genesis 1:26 referred to above, but this is also true of other passages in the Old Testament. The phrase “B’nai ha Elohim” which occurs for instance in Genesis 6:1-4 is translated in the King James Bible as “sons of God” while its correct translation is actually “sons of the gods” because the English word for “Elohim” is “gods.”

It is, however, principally the theology of the Trinity that is incomprehensible to outsiders. According to the Christians the three gods are not three but one. At the same time, it is not one god but three. It is not merely a question how something can be singular and plural at the same time; it is a nonsensical claim that is in direct conflict with the laws of logic; in particular the Law of Contradiction which states that nothing can be both A and not-A and that a proposition cannot be true and false at the same time. In spite of this, the Christian Church, with the help of secular authorities, brutally suppressed any criticism and persecuted those who disagreed with them. The Spanish theologian Michael Servetus was, for instance, burned at the stake in Geneva in 1553, at the behest of John Calvin, for denying the Trinity. Another well-known case is that of the Scottish student Thomas Aikenhead, who was found guilty of blasphemy and hanged in Edinburgh in 1689. His crime? He had, among other things, denied that three can be one. Bizarre as it may sound, the same year (1689) both the Toleration Act and the Blasphemy Act were passed by the British parliament. While the former guaranteed religious freedom, the latter sought to criminalize antitrinitarian beliefs. According to its provisions, it was a crime to deny that “any one of the persons in the Holy Trinity (is) God, or … assert or maintain that there are more Gods than one.”

As their name indicates, the Unitarian Church in Britain believed at the time, contrary to the provisions of the Blasphemy Act, in only one God, Yahweh. Jesus was, according to them, inspired by Yahweh but not his son. They further denied the existence of the Holy Ghost. With the greater tolerance that later developed towards nonconformists such as the Unitarians, those sections of the Blasphemy Act that criminalized the denial of the Trinity were eventually repealed by the Doctrine of the Trinity Act of 1813. Nowadays numerous Christian sects disbelieve in the Trinity. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, only accept Yahweh as their God. Although Jesus is his son, he is only a high priest and an intermediary, while they claim that the Holy Ghost is Yahweh’s divine power. The Mormons on the other hand, maintain that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three separate gods. The first two have bodies of flesh and blood while the Holy Ghost is immaterial. All three, however, have the same will and purpose.

The next aspect that needs to be examined is what the Trinity is and how it functions—also in respect of the individual components within the bigger whole. The Protestant Churches declare by way of explanation that “all things are from the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Ghost,” while the Catholic Church use the expression “est Pater, qui generat, et Filius, qui gignitur, et Spiritus Sanctu, qui procedit” or “it is the Father that generates, the Son that is begotten and the Holy Spirit that proceeds.” What it means is a mystery. But then again, it is not supposed to make sense, it is mysticism, it divulges hidden knowledge to the initiated, the chosen few. The problems do not end there; the description of the components within the Trinity is likewise very confusing. As Waugh (supra) points out, God the Father is not an ordinary father, he is a spirit and a holy one at that, so how is he different from the “Holy Spirit”? An attempt to answer the question is made by the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church where the following is said in relation to the ‘Holy Spirit’: “It is held that the mode of the Spirit’s procession in the Godhead is by way of ‘spiration’ (not ‘generation’) and that this procession takes place as a single principle.” Paragraph 687 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church fares no better and instead muddies the water even further: “Now God’s Spirit, who reveals God, makes known to us Christ, his Word, his living Utterance, but the Spirit does not speak of himself. The Spirit who ‘has spoken through the prophets’ makes us hear the Father’s Word, but we do not hear the Spirit himself. We know him only in the movement by which he reveals the Word to us and disposes us to welcome him in faith. The Spirit of truth who ‘unveils’ Christ to us will not speak on his own.”

It is exactly this type of gobbledygook that causes Christians trouble when they try to defend their deity from attacks by atheists. And that is also true of the purely monotheistic God of the Jews and the Muslims. Whenever the God concept is criticized, theists counter by describing God in terms of what he is not. That is known as negative theology. However, as Antony Flew pointed out in his book God and Philosophy, it is not possible to distinguish a being who is only described in terms of negative attributes from no being at all. Is it for instance possible that a being who is infinite, immortal, invisible, and nonmaterial (or spiritual) can exist at all? And again that is not the only problem. God can only be negatively defined if knowledge regarding his true nature is available—knowledge that believers say they lack. At the same time, these type of pronouncements are often in conflict with claims (usually made by the same person) that God is incomprehensible and ineffable.

The last question is whether the trinitarian God is anthropomorphic, transcendent, or immanent. The former occurs mostly in the case of polytheism such as the Greek gods who had human forms and lived on Mount Olympus. Although divine anthropomorphism is generally rejected these days, it appears from the Old Testament that even when monotheism was the norm, human qualities were attributed to Yahweh. We are told in Genesis 1:27 for example, that he had the same form as a human being. Although he later informed Moses that he, Moses, may not see his face but only his back parts (Exodus 33:23), descriptions of his very human appearance are found in Daniel 7:9-10 and Revelations 1:12-17. Elsewhere we read that Yahweh, like man, is jealous (Exodus 20:5), prone to anger and that he will not hesitate to resort to violence at the slightest provocation. (See, for example, Exodus 4:14,24 and 2 Samuel 6:3-7.)

In the case of transcendentalism, God is not subject to the limitations of the physical universe, as he exists outside of it. Such a conception is not compatible with the descriptions given previously of Yahweh. Moreover, as W. T. Stace points out in A Critical History of Greek Philosophy, there can be no interaction between a transcendental God (who exists in a different dimension) and the material universe, and such a God could accordingly not have created it. That is also true of an immanent God who is indissolubly part of the universe and cannot be detached from nature. If such a God created the universe, he would literally have had to create himself. The best known form of immanence is, of course, pantheism, and the most prominent exponents thereof were Baruch Spinoza and Albert Einstein. Other forms of immanence also exist. The philosophers Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead, for instance, identified God with creativity.

What about the Trinity? According to paragraph 239 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Catholic God is both transcendent and immanent (but apparently not anthropomorphic). The relevant portion of the paragraph reads as follows: “God is the first origin of everything and (a) transcendental authority… God’s parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood, which emphasizes God’s immanence…” Such claims are not only mutually exclusive, they completely disregard what the Bible says about Yahweh and his interaction with man. However, it seems that the Trinity is, semantically speaking at least, a transcendental deity. How do we know this? The third member thereof is known as the Holy Spirit or Ghost and according to the dictionary a spirit or ghost is an entity that exists outside the material universe. The other two members of the trio are, according to Christian theology, of the same substance. And that, it seems, is all that can be said with any certainty of the Trinity.