Councils and the Trinity

Amongst other things, it became imperative for Christians, who no longer lived in communities mainly isolated from one another by the hostility of the state, to define a set of doctrines.  The process began at the council of Nicaea in 325, where the relationship of God the Son to the Father was defined as homousios “ of the same substance / essence”.  But this was just the start of the arguments.  The Nicene definition of the Christian faith only became fully accepted, after much argument, following the council of Constantinople in 381, and for much of the intervening fifty six years official Roman Christianity held to a much more traditional position, describing Christ as “like” (homoios) or “similar in substance / essence to” (homoeusios) God the Father.  (Peter Heather – Oxford)

Firstly, and most obviously, the Gospels do not identify Jesus with God: they are two different persons.  Even in those passages that present Jesus as divine, he is subordinate, and this subordination of divine entities under one supreme deity is consistent with the tenets of ancient monotheism.  Moreover, the doctrine of Christ as fully God and fully man was a fourth century teaching, one that could be defended by an appeal to the first-century texts, but not one native to them.  And even the fully divine / fully human Christ was imagined as another “person” distinct from God.  (Paula Fredriksen – Professor Boston, Princeton, Stanford)

[Councils]  Nicaea and Chalcedon are the most significant, dealing respectively with the true divinity of Jesus Christ as “of one substance (or being) with the Father”, and with the union in Jesus Christ of divinity and humanity which are “not to be confused, not changed, not divided and not separated”.  In other words, the central development was that both divinity and humanity were reconceived by thinking through the significance of Jesus Christ… the debates were often quite technical, and theological judgments on them have varied predictably.  For some they are still the last word in christology… For others, an originally Jewish faith was distorted by capitulating to the surrounding Graeco-Roman culture and especially its philosophy. (David F. Ford – Professor Cambridge)

Church councils at any level are improbable organs of the Holy Ghost, subject, as they are to, to the same failings and mischances as beset annual general meetings of amateur dramatic societies, the proceedings of Faculty Boards, and even more august assemblies.  They are composed of the few who speak much and the many who sit silent save when roused to chorus approval or outrage.   When they meet, some members will turn up late; most will have only an imperfect understanding of the business; and none will remember what they collectively did at the meeting, till the minutes are later circulated.  Indeed “remember” is too strong a word, since the chairman and secretary will have drawn up the record and decreed a corporate memory of what was said and done.  The Council of Ephesus (AD 431) is an excellent example of the genus at its worst.  (Lionel Wickham – Cambridge)

It must strike even desultory readers of the Old Testament that the god it depicts – a tribal deity – is a bully and a tyrant of the first water.  The contrast with the New Testament’s avuncular deity is striking.  But what readers might not know is that some biblical texts have a decidedly questionable history.  Consider Deuteronomy, which in the midst of yet another doctrinal quarrel with Israel, was suddenly and conveniently “found” by workmen refurbishing the Temple; and of course it gave unequivocal support to one side of the argument.  Yahweh often entered on cue like this, apparently unable to resist politics, and invariably on the winning side.  Jesus’s divinity affords another example.  In Mark’s Gospel he is a man; in the theology of St Paul he is the medium of the New Covenant; in the fourth century AD, after a massive controversy over the Arian “heresy” – Arius of Alexandra had argued that Jesus must be less divine than the Father – he became a god in human form.  (A. C. Grayling – Professor Birkbeck, Oxford)

[Christianity in the fourth century]  There seemed to e very little agreement among the wider Christian community about what constituted orthodox belief.  When a serious dispute arose over whether the Holy trinity of the Father, Son and Holy ghost was one body or separate entities with a hierarchy, Constantine, who saw himself as God’s representative on earth in both religious and secular affairs, was determined to bring the squabbling to an end by ordering the bishops to find a compromise.  He called the Council of Nicaea in 325, where a decision was reached to which virtually all the bishops signed up. But if Constantine thought that was the end of the doctrinal infighting then he was very much mistaken.  It soon turned out that none of the parties were happy with the outcome.  (Richard Miles – Sydney and Cambridge)

You know, what happened with me with respect to heaven and hell – I guess is what happened with a lot of the Christian doctrines – is as a historian, I came to see where these ideas came from. And I realized that these ideas didn’t descend from heaven one day soon after Jesus’s death, that in fact, the doctrines of heaven and hell were human creations – that the humans came up these views of heaven and hell. And in my book, I explain a little bit how that happened, that doctrines of heaven and hell developed within early Christianity; that they weren’t actually the teachings of Jesus or of his earliest followers, but they were later developments, as were the doctrines of the trinity, for example, or the divinity of Christ. (Bart D. Ehrman Professor University of North Carolina)

The treatise, On How Many Heads One Should Praise a God, by a second-century [AD] rhetorician Alexander, begins with a reference to the philosophic view that god is
unbegotten and not susceptible of destruction.  (Charles H. Talbert – Professor Baylor)

It was at the end of the second century that Christians first madesubstantial attempts to harmonize the religion of Jesus and Paul with the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Clement of Alexandria published a set of Miscellanies, written in the style of table talk, in which he argued that the study of philosophy was not only permissible, but necessary, for the educated Christian. (Anthony Kenny – Professor Oxford)

the doctrine of the Trinity makes it very difficult to say in

precisely what sense Christians believe in one God, and which some early

writers at least, like Origen or Eusebius, took to be perfectly compatible

with the notion of a ‘first’ and a ‘second’ God. And of course there is

also the veneration of the saints. A more imaginative understanding of

Christianity will allow us to see that none of this contradicts the

Christian claim to believe and venerate only one God. But some explanation is required, and once we provide this explanation, it becomes difficult to see why the same imaginative understanding should not be accorded to the pagan point of view. Thus one may conclude that, inorder to do justice to Judaism, Christianity, and various forms of pagan thought and worship, one needs in each case to define the term ‘monotheism’ very carefully. (Polymnia Athanassiadi Professor Athens and Michael Frede Professor Oxford)

It was at the end of the second century that Christians first made

substantial attempts to harmonize the religion of Jesus and Paul with the

philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Clement of Alexandria published a set of

Miscellanies (Stromateis), written in the style of table talk, in which he argued

that the study of philosophy was not only permissible, but necessary, for the

educated Christian. The Greek thinkers were pedagogues for the world’sadolescence, divinely appointed to bring it to Christ in its maturity. Clementenrolled Plato as an ally against dualist Christian heretics, he experimented with Aristotelian logic, and he praised the Stoic ideal of freedom from passion. In the manner of Philo, he explained away as allegorical aspects of the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, which repelled educated Greeks. In this he founded a tradition that was to have a long history in Alexandria. (Anthony Kenny – Professor Oxford)

The doctrine of the Trinity is not in the Bible if it is read in its
historical context. Of course, one can find references to the Father,
the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, even together
as a triad in Matthew 28:19. But the actual doctrine, which teaches
that the three are different “persons” who each share the
same “substance” of full divinity, took centuries to be developed,
elaborated, defended, and established as Christian dogma.
Christian theologians may be right if they say that the doctrine is at
least “hinted at” in the New Testament, and that the later church
was correct in “taking” the Bible to teach the doctrine, but that is a
theological position, not a strictly historical one. (Dale Martin – Professor Yale)

The idea that Satan was a fallen, rebellious angel who was joined by
other fallen angels, who are the same beings as those
called “demons” or “evil spirits” in the New Testament, is not
actually in the New Testament. It is an invention of Christians that
began in the second century CE, and became important for
Christian mythology and lore. (Dale Martin – Professor Yale)

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