Friday, June 1, 2012

Some Lesser-known Information Regarding the History of the Teaching on the Holy Trinity

The Feast Day of the Blessed Holy Trinity

The festival of the Trinity is unique in many respects. First and foremost, of course, its focus is on a doctrine rather than an event in the life and ministry of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In addition, the call and desire for its observance came not from theologians, Doctors of the Church, Popes, or Councils, but from the common people and priests in Christian congregations early in the second millennium of the Church.

For the first thousand years of Christianity, this Sunday was called "The Octave [8th Day"] of Pentecost. Beginning in the 11th Century, local parishes began to observe this day as the Festival of the Holy Trinity. Why exactly, is unknown. This was completely a "grass-roots" movement, not one coming from the leaders of the Church.

However, in 1332 Pope John XXII proclaimed that this Feast Day can and should be celebrated throughout the Church. In the beginning the festival was celebrated at different times in different part of the Church. In some places it was observed on the Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost. In other places it was marked on the Sunday before St. Andrew's Day, thus making it the last Sunday in the Church Year. Eventually, the Sunday after Pentecost became the favored time to observe this great festival.

Today, the Festival of the Holy Trinity marks the end of the Church Year's first half. The festivals of the first half commemorate the historic facts of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth – all of which point to Him and Him alone, and indeed confirm Him, as the one and only Redeemer, Mediator, and Savior of all mankind.

This Feast Day is quite different in that it teaches and praises a great doctrine of the Holy Scriptures. In doing so, it sums up all the doctrines and teachings of the entire Bible and gives due and proper expression to the adoring worship of all true believers of the one true and only God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – One in Three and Three in One!

A "close call" for the correct doctrine of the Trinity!

Few believers today realize how close the Western Christian Church came to losing a truly Biblical and salutary formulation of the teaching concerning the Holy Trinity. Things got pretty dicey there for a while. Allow me to give a quick thumbnail's sketch of what happened.

While it is true that the very Scriptural and correct explanation of the Trinity taught by St. Athanasius won out at the Council of Nice in Bithynia in A.D. 325 – later referred to as the Council of Nicaea – that most certainly did not end the matter. In fact, it would take nearly sixty more years for the proper Biblical understanding to finally gain the upper hand, and more than one hundred and twenty years before it was firmly entrenched and solidified throughout the Western Church.

It seems that some of the bishops at the council went along only reluctantly with the Athanasian formula. They were led by Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, and had the support of the Emperor's sister, Constantia. Indeed, she had been able to turn her brother to the Arian side of the controversy; so much so that Athanasius was actually banished from the Imperial Court in 336. Had Arius himself not died that very year, plans were even in the works to bring him to Constantinople in great pomp and ceremony and reinstate him into the good graces of the Church.

Constantine himself died the next year. But that gave only more power and influence to the Eusebians. Constantius, the second son of Constantine became emperor and he made Eusebius Bishop of Constantinople in 338. Thus, the Arian followers of Eusebius took complete control of the Eastern Church and began systematically to pressure the Church on the Western side of the Empire. Many Church Councils were held, many creeds were formulated, and many "anathemas" hurled against each side by the other.

Now, it is important to remember that the Roman Empire of those days was divided into two Empires – the East and West. Constantius, an Arian, was Emperor in the East, and his brother Constans, who favored Athanasius, was Emperor in the West. There were many complicated political reasons why the two brothers would sometimes work together and support one another, and other times oppose and work against each other. Thus, politics played a large role in the outcome of this controversy. God does indeed use strange means, His wonders to perform!

Constans had called for a general synod or council to settle the question of the Trinity. His brother went along with this call and such a council met in 343 at Sofia, Bulgaria. However, instead of solving the problem, this meeting ended in complete separation in the church. The delegates from the East walked out and held their own meeting at a place called Philippopolis. Things then went from bad to worse for the "good guys."

Here now, a quick review of the problem: Following Arius, but compromising a bit on his doctrine, the Eusebians held to an understanding of the persons of the Trinity best summarized in the Greek term "homoiousios," meaning that the essence of the Second Person (and Third Person for that matter) of the Trinity is "like" but not the "same as" that of the Father. Athanasius and his followers insisted that the Bible clearly teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all have the very same essence; the Greek term here being "homoousios;" [note that only the little letter 'i' divides them!] although they remain three distinct "persons" within the one divine Godhead. One is not any less eternal, omnipotent God than the other, and so on. For any number of reasons, many Christians found this teaching quite unsatisfactory!

Back to our story – As Church Councils piled up it looked as though the Eusebians would win the battle. Athanasius and his followers were condemned at Milan in 355, and banished from the Empire. Athanasius had to flee into the desert, where he lived for years among the monks and hermits. Every time the Athanasian party would seem like they were making a comeback, Eastern Emperor Constantius would issue a decree and back the Eusebians.

Then Constantius died in 361, and was followed in quick succession by two Arian Emperors, Julian the Apostate and Valens. This turned out, however, to be a good development for the true Trinitarians. Julian allowed Athanasius to return from exile, whereupon he then guided a wonderful Council at Alexandria in 362. In addition, both Julian and Valens proved to be so violent and fanatical that they turned many people, priests, deacons, and bishops against the Arian side. By the time of Athanasius' death in 373, the Biblical and orthodox view of the Trinity had gained ground. In 381 the Emperor Theodosius the Great called the Second Council of Constantinople at which the old Nicene Creed was re-approved and declared the true and Scriptural doctrine.

At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, a new "Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed" was first quoted and received with great acclaim as the "faith of the Three Hundred and Eighteen Fathers (a reference to the Council of Nicaea in 325) and the "faith of the One Hundred and Fifty Fathers" (a reference to the Council of Constantinople of 381). It is indeed this very creed – the one quoted in A.D. 451 – which we today refer to as simply "The Nicene Creed." But, let us never forget that we all came "this close" to being Arians and losing saving faith altogether.

Let us praise God for His goodness and mercy, and thank our Lord and Savior and Ruler of All Things, Jesus Christ, for His marvelous working in the world of empires and councils, emperors and bishops, to safeguard the faith once delivered to the saints and thus our connection to salvation and eternal life!

And now for your further Feast of the Holy Trinity contemplations –

A Bible study done many years ago in a former congregation:

The Trinity in the Old Testament

The Trinity is clearly laid out in the New Testament. Still, it is implicitly revealed also in the Old Testament.

Unmistakable indications of the Trinity in the Hebrew Scriptures include:

1. The use of plural forms.

a. Pronouns, where God speaking, uses “us” and “our.” (Genesis 3:22, Genesis 11:7, Isaiah 6:8) The most important passage is Genesis 1:26-27, where the plurality is used in connection with the very nature of God. This is the most compelling reference because here God uses plural forms to explain his own “image and likeness.”

b. The plural form for “Lord” used frequently in the Old Testament. (“adonai” =
“Lord” literally, “my Masters”)

c. The Hebrew had a singular term for God, “Eloah,” which they occasionally used, but the vast majority of the time the plural form of God, “Elohim,” is used throughout the Old Testament. Had there been only be two persons within God, the Hebrews could have used a dual form “Elohiayim,” which was usually used of things that occurred in pairs.

2. Usage of the word “one” in the composite sense.

a. The Old Testament teaches that God is One (Deuteronomy 6:4), yet this does not conflict in any way with Trinitarian belief. On the contrary, it actually helps to affirm this doctrine. One of the most compelling examples in the Old Testament of the composite sense of “one” is found in Genesis 2:24. Two people who were very pointedly created in the “image” of God, become “one flesh” in the marriage union, and thus produce a sense of an image in a composite sense. The use of the Hebrew word for one, “echad,” in other passages also demonstrates that this word means “one entity” rather than a strictly single, solitary thing.

3. Theophanies, that is, instances where the Second Person of the Trinity, the
pre-incarnate Christ, appears in the form of “The Angel of the LORD.”

a. The Old Testament contain numerous examples of a Being who, although He appears in the form of a man, acts and speaks like God and is referred to as God. Indeed, He is both identified as God and distinguished from God. (see Genesis 16:7-13; 18-19; 22:11-18; Exodus 3:2-6; 23:20-23; Judges 6:11-14, 20-22; 13:21-23; Zechariah 12:8)

b. These appearances prepared God’s people for the incarnation, since they
described the coming of a Divine Visitor who would be both true God and true man.

4. The many “Son” passages.

a. The Old Testament describes a Being who is uniquely a very human, yet also very divine Son. (i.e. Proverbs 30:4; Isaiah 9:6; Psalm 2:7-12; Daniel 7:13-14) NOTE: This last passage forms the background behind Jesus’ own use of the title “Son of Man.” This title has tremendous meaning.

- It denotes His exalted personality as the One who comes from heaven and opposes the beastly human powers, which come from earth

- It connect His advent with His reappearance of the clouds of glory

- It speaks of His free access to the “One who is The ancient of days,” God the Father

- It shows His universal and everlasting reign

5. The use of pronouns suggesting more than one Person within God.

a. The LORD uses both “Me” and “Him” in referring to the same Being, Christ in
Zechariah 12:10. 

b. The Angel of the LORD uses both “from Me” and “fearer of God” in referring to the same entity in Genesis 22:12.

6. Passages that identify two Beings as God or LORD (YHWH).

a. Genesis 19:23 – YHWH in heaven versus YHWH on earth

b. Psalm 45:6-7 – God referring to Another as “God”

c. Zechariah 3:1-2 – YHWH calling upon YHWH: “And the LORD said unto Satan, The LORD rebuke you, O Satan”

7. The Holy Spirit is linked with God and given attributes of personality.

a. All three Persons of the Trinity can be seen in Isaiah 63:8-10

b. Most importantly we see here the personality of the Holy Spirit. He is “vexed, grieved” by disobedience. This verb in Hebrew is always used in conjunction with persons, or God, and never of inanimate things.

Therefore, we see that in the Old Testament all the essential components for the doctrine of the Trinity were laid out. Of course, what may have been enigma to many of the Jews of the Old Testament was revealed in full splendor in the New Testament.

In the providence of God working through history, it was only a matter of time before believers began to systematize and articulate these passages into meaningful theological statements. It is indeed fascinating to trace the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, from the subtle, seminal forms seen in the OT to the full glory of saving truth found in the NT. Thus, as we reflect on the fact of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, may we also reflect upon the marvel, mystery, and wonder of the One True Triune God!

Pastor Spencer

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