The Trinity Doctrine is a theological Christian concept that says God has three manifestations or extensions – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each of God’s manifestations is an independent extension of God, but the three together make up the whole. The idea is that God is composed of “three persons,” but only “one substance,” as the official doctrine states.
In this day and age, the Trinity Doctrine is so entrenched in mainstream Christian consciousness that most Christians hardly give it much thought or critical examination. Certainly no mainstream Christian would consider herself a polytheist. Yet early in Christian history, before Christianity was the force in western society that it is today, it was commonly recognized among non-Christians that the Christians had three gods. Even as late as the 19th century, when the British were busy colonizing and converting the native tribes of Africa, it was understood by the African tribesmen that the British had come from the Great White Queen across the water (Victoria) who worshipped a three-headed god. To people not familiar with this deeply entrenched doctrine, it fairly screams of polytheism at best, and Dissociative Identity Disorder at worst. Maybe Sybil wasn’t so crazy after all.
Read the New Testament, and you won’t find a single instance of the word “trinity.” It is a concept that was developed not by Jesus, not by his followers, not by the writers of the New Testament, but by the ecumenical councils of the 4th and 5th centuries – in other words, groups of old, rich, powerful men who met in lavish palaces, all expenses paid, and were plied with gifts and food and wine while being tended to by servants, all while doing the so-called work of God to formalize and systematize Christianity so it could be sold to the masses. As Rabbi Joel Blau once said: “Theology: that madness gone systematic which tries to crowd God’s fullness into a formula and a system!” And nothing represents this idea better than the doctrine of the Trinity, which was birthed as a result of the group copulation of those aforementioned old white men at the ecumenical councils of the 4th and 5th centuries.
Of course, I’m speaking a little tongue-in-cheek here, and to be fair, the Trinity concept was first discussed as early as the 200’s in the writings of Tertullian, but it became a central issue of the first ecumenical councils, and it was at those councils, in the 300’s and 400’s C.E., that the concept was finally cemented into a nice, beribboned theological package – a perfect way to describe how God and Jesus could be one, with the Holy Spirit (whatever that is) thrown in for good measure. The ironic thing is that Tertullian, despite beginning his days as a great defender of Orthodoxy, later moved away from the Catholic Church, referring to it as “the church of a lot of bishops,” and began following a form of Christianity called Montanism, which the Church (of course, since it wasn’t their own) considered heretical. For this reason, Tertullian, despite being a leading theologian, prolific writer, and prominent Christian apologist of the early Christian era, has never been canonized. So the person who, 200 years after Jesus’ life, first gave us the Trinity concept, is also someone who the Church – which adopted that Trinity concept and put it into a nice package – deemed a heretic.
It has long been debated – literally since the doctrine was established – whether there is any biblical veracity for the Trinity idea. I’ve already mentioned that no New Testament text uses the word “trinity,” and the idea itself wasn’t conceived of until at least the 200’s, and wasn’t formalized until the 300’s. But can one go to the words of Jesus, or to the words of other New Testament figures, to find evidence that the Trinity exists?
For those who abide by the Trinity Doctrine, their strongest textual argument comes from the last passage of the book of Matthew. There, Matthew describes the resurrected Jesus’ ascent into heaven. Prior to flying off into the great blue yonder (where, presumably, he donned a space suit and oxygen tank so he could breath in low earth orbit), Jesus instructed his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Here, then, is the only instance in the entire Bible where all three of God’s distinct yet unified personalities are mentioned together in one breath.
The problem, of course, is twofold. First, we can’t know for certain whether these were the words of Jesus, or the words of Matthew. Skeptics might immediately reject the words as coming from Jesus, since they are purported to have been spoken after his resurrection. But it’s always possible, of course, that Matthew accurately recorded something that Jesus said, but simply stuck it into a post-resurrection narrative. A scholarly look at the texts of Jesus’ life would imply that he probably did send his followers out to teach in his name (Mark gives a detailed summary of Jesus doing just this during his ministry – sending his followers out two by two to heal and teach). But would Jesus have talked about a Father and a Son and a Holy Spirit? Since messianic prophecies weren’t applied to Jesus’ life until after his death, it seems rather unlikely. Of course, even if they were only the words of Matthew, and not Jesus, they are still words written early in Christian history, in the Bible itself, which might help support a Trinitarian doctrine. This, however, leads to the second problem.
Whether Jesus said these words, or Matthew simply put them into Jesus’ mouth, there is no indication or even implication that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all of one substance, as the Trinity doctrine states. Because the Trinity doctrine is so entrenched in our Christian mindset, we read this passage through the lens of that later doctrine. Yet, if you strip the doctrinal blinkers away and read the passage as it was written, you can see that Jesus is simply instructing his followers to baptize people into the names of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. He says nothing, and implies nothing, about these three entities being one and the same and equal. It would be no different than telling someone to go teach the principles of American democracy to foreigners, “baptizing” them into the names of Jefferson, Washington, and the Continental Congress. That doesn’t mean Jefferson, Washington, and the Continental Congress are all of the same substance.
On the flip side of the coin, there is another passage, this time in Mark, where it seems quite clear that Jesus is, in fact, saying plainly that God is “one” (as opposed to “three” as the Trinity doctrine suggests). This “one vs. three” dichotomy has long been the central issue between Christianity and Judaism. I read a rabbi/priest joke just today that centered on the idea of God as one and God as three. Jews, of course, believe that God is one, relying on that oft-repeated mantra from the Torah: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Christians, because of the Trinity concept, believe God is three.
The writer of Mark – the earliest of the Gospel writers – gives us a very detailed picture of Jesus’ last week on earth. According to Mark, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on Sunday, and spent the week before his death teaching and fending off attacks from the Pharisees. In Mark 12:28-34, Jesus is approached by one of the “teachers of the law” and is asked to tell which commandment of God’s is the greatest. I’ll let you read the rest of the passage for yourself:
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared asked him any more questions.
As you can see, this is a rather eye-opening passage, in light of our understanding of God as three. Jesus – who, of course, was a practicing Jew living in a pre-Christian Jewish world that knew nothing of 4th century Trinity doctrines – said that the greatest commandment, the one that stood out above all the others, is the very one that Jews still use to this day to ritualize their belief in the basic oneness of God: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The “teacher of the law,” the Orthodox Jew, says that Jesus was “right in saying that God is one,” and Jesus then recognizes that the man “had answered wisely.” As with the passage in Matthew, whether you attribute these words and thoughts to Jesus himself, or simply to the writer of Mark, the fact remains that this New Testament passage is clearly describing God’s nature as one, not three. For a traditionally-believing Christian who accepts that the words of Jesus recorded in the Bible are accurate, this passage should be quite eye-opening, as the Son himself is unmistakably saying that God is one.
As you can imagine, I don’t personally find any absolution in the idea that God has three distinct personalities. I believe Jesus was a man who was uniquely in touch with the essence of God, and who taught a message of love, peace, acceptance, and servitude. Regarding God, I suppose I conceive of God more like a Jew than a Christian – that is, I conceive of God as unknowable, unnamed, and formless. For me, God is love, and love is God. As for the Holy Spirit, I’m not sure I could even define what Christians believe the Holy Spirit is. Clearly it is born from that feeling of religious ecstasy that people experience from time to time. But how this emotional feeling could relate to a being that exists as a personality of God is beyond me. It would be like suggesting that the feeling of anger is a divine aspect of God. I think most Christians probably don’t understand the concept of the Holy Spirit either.
Most Christians will freely pray to God and Jesus, individually, but I’ve never heard anyone address the Holy Spirit, as an entity, in prayer. Yet, by the doctrine of the Trinity, that would be perfectly sensible and reasonable. Unfortunately, from my perspective, that’s about the only way that “sensible and reasonable” could occur in the same breath with “doctrine of the Trinity.” For me, the Trinity doctrine is bad math; three just doesn’t add up, either biblically or spiritually.