Hope of Israel Ministries (Ecclesia of YEHOVAH):
Where's the 1st-Century Controversy Over the Trinity?
It is preposterous to think that the Messiah or his apostles redefined the concept of God from a uni-personal, monotheistic belief that "YEHOVAH alone is God" to a triune God of Three Persons, when there is NOT one New Testament book, NOT one chapter, NOT one paragraph describing such a change!
by Sean Finnegan
Many groups do not see a need to peel back the layers of tradition in order to discover the original apostolic faith of the first century. Rather, they are content to hold fast to the beliefs and practices that the Church has bequeathed to them, regardless of whether or not they were held by the Messiah and the early Christians. That is not the sort of Christian I am. Instead, I am trying to be a restorationist -- someone who wants to understand and align my practice of Christianity as closely as possible with the earliest Christians.
Unfortunately, many times people who belong to restorationist groups, like us, oversimplify what early Christianity looked like. We imagine that everyone got along and agreed on doctrines, that there were no major schisms or controversies until much later. Some of us probably even believe that until the fourth century when the Trinitarian controversy occurred, everything was serene and unified. But this picture, no matter how much we might want it to be true, is simply not accurate in light of the facts.
In actuality, many of the epistles of Paul deal specifically with controversial issues in the new churches. For example, in Corinth, the saints of Israel had begun to split into factions: one for Paul, one for Apollos, one for Cephas, and one for the Messiah. Paul responded: "Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I [personally] baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name" (1 Corinthians 1:13-15 ).
Further controversies concerned the role of women in the meeting, which was apparently an issue in the first century (1 Corinthians 14:34-36; 1 Timothy 2:11-15). Also, one of the most highly disputed issues which caused division was whether or not believers from the Diaspora were to be circumcised. In fact, the disagreement was so sharp and the outcome so serious that a council was held in Jerusalem with the pillars of the church in order to decide on the proper solution. The resultant letter (Acts 15:23-29) was then carried throughout the Mediterranean world by Paul and Silas to inform the churches that the Israelites of the Diaspora were accepted without a need to become circumcised.
My purpose in mentioning these early disagreements is simply to point out the fact that even back in the first century, in the early years of Christianity, there were plenty of controversies over all sorts of issues. Why was that the case? The answer is simple: any time someone changes their theological views on an issue and then teaches others, there will be some who resists the change. Controversy is not necessarily bad even if it is uncomfortable, because through dialog and dispute we are able to discern where we need to change. So, when there is a significant change in doctrine there are almost always growing pains as people deliberate and transition occurs.
However, once we begin to talk about the doctrine of the Trinity, we encounter a major road-block. The Trinitarian myth generally goes like this: "Jesus claimed to be God in a Trinitarian sense; he taught that he was God to his disciples who accepted it on the basis of his miracles and resurrection; it wasn't until 300 years later when the heretic Arius started spouting nonsense about Jesus being created that the Church was compelled to formulate a creed to fight him off, though the Church had unanimously believed in the Trinity all along."
Generally speaking, Trinitarian defenders will tip their hats to a historical reconstruction similar to this. If the question is asked, "Who was the first Trinitarian?" the answer is always "Jesus." But if one asks, "Who was the second Trinitarian?" suddenly we have a major thought experiment on our hands, because nowhere in Scripture does the Messiah ever teach the Trinity. So the Trinitarian is left to fumble his or her way to the answer: "Well, the Scripture doesn't say this clearly, but I'm sure the disciples believed in it." But, isn't that just assuming the answer from the outset? Furthermore, where is the controversy?
It is absolutely critical to realize that the first generation of Christians was strictly monotheistic, in the unitary sense: God is one Person only. They were raised to believe in the Shema, the central creed of Judaism which teaches that YEHOVAH our God is one YEHOVAH (not two or three). From that day to today, one would be hard pressed to find a single Jew who would just go along with the idea that the Messiah is God. [However, astonishingly, today there are Messianic Jewish, Trinitarian believers -- ed.]. It's just not part of the Jewish religion. But if the Messiah really was teaching that he was God in a Trinitarian sense to non-Trinitarian, first century Judahites, then wouldn't that be a massively significant change? Yet, as we saw just a moment ago, change generally breeds controversy. In fact, we could say that the bigger the change the more likely it is that there will be resistance.
Let's take it one step further. Let's assume that the disciples had no trouble accepting this new Trinitarian formula for defining God and they went forth proclaiming the Trinity from town to town after the Messiah ascended into heaven. As they arrived at synagogue after synagogue it is easy to observe that there was significant resistance and persecution, which is what we would expect if they were teaching that God is Three-in-One rather than just one Person, the Father. Even so we must ask the question, why were the early Christians persecuted? Was it because they taught that the Messiah was God or was it for other reasons?
In Judea Peter and John were persecuted by the Sanhedrin for proclaiming the resurrection of a man they had executed as a false Messiah (Acts 4:2; 5:28). Stephen was first accused of saying "that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us" (Acts 6:14). Then he called the Sanhedrin to repentance (Acts 7:51-53) which enraged them to the point that they gnashed their teeth, stopped their ears, and stoned him to death (Acts 7:54-58).
Once Paul became a Christian he preached in Damascus that Yeshua was the Messiah, the first-born Son of God (Acts 9:20-22). He was so difficult to defeat in argument that the people decided to murder him, though he narrowly escaped when he was let down from the city wall in a basket (Acts 9:23-25). In Pisidian Antioch, Paul and Barnabas were persecuted by the Judahite leadership because they were jealous that many of the Gentile Israelite proselytes and Judahites gravitated towards the Christian message (Acts 13:42-45).
The early Christians in Syrian Antioch were harassed by Christian Judaizers because the Judahite Christians ate with the Gentile Israelite Christians, accepting them as full members of the people of YEHOVAH God even though they were not circumcised and they did not keep "the law of Moses" (Galatians 2:4, 11-16; Acts 15:1-2). In Philippi, Paul and Silas were seized and beaten after they had cast a demon out of a girl who was being used to make money by telling fortunes (Acts 16:16-19). The specific accusation brought against them was that they (being Judahites) were throwing the city into confusion by "proclaiming customs which it is not lawful for us to accept or to observe, being Romans" (Acts 16:20-21).
In Thessalonica, Paul and Silas preached that the Messiah had to suffer and rise again from the dead and that Yeshua was in fact the Messiah (Acts 17:3). When a large number of God-fearing Gentile Israelites and leading Judahite women joined Paul and Silas, the Judahites became jealous and instigated a city-wide uproar. As a result they seized Jason (the one who was housing Paul and Silas) and dragged him before the city authorities saying, "These men who have upset the world have come here also...they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus" (Acts 17:6-7). In Ephesus, Paul's traveling companions -- Gaius and Aristarchus -- were dragged by an angry mob into the theater where they shouted out "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians" for hours, because Paul had been teaching that idols were not real gods (Acts 19:26).
Later on, in Jerusalem, Paul was nearly torn to pieces by a riot which broke out because they thought he had brought Trophimus, a Gentile Israelite from Ephesus, into the inner courts of the Temple (Acts 21:28-29). The formal accusation they brought against Paul was that they found him to be "a real pest and a fellow who stirs up dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ring leader of the sect of the Nazarenes. And he even tried to desecrate the temple" (Acts 24:5-6). The Roman administrator Porcius Festus summarized the accusation like this: "they [the accusing Jews] simply had some points of disagreement with him [Paul] about their own religion and about a dead man, Jesus, whom Paul asserted to be alive" (Acts 25:18-19).
There is no shortage of trouble the early Christians faced as they traipsed about the Mediterranean world proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom of YEHOVAH God and the Messiah (Acts 8:12), but isn't it telling that they never even once faced the accusation that they were redefining God? Never did a riot erupt over Paul proclaiming that Yeshua of Nazareth was a Divine, eternal Being. Not once did someone say, "I can't accept Jesus as God because that would be idolatry." Yet, every single Jew today would say exactly that if they were asked to recognize the Messiah as the second member of the holy Trinity.
It is preposterous to think that the Messiah or his apostles redefined the concept of God from a unipersonal, monotheistic belief that "YEHOVAH alone is God" to a triune God of Three Persons, when there is not one New Testament book, not one chapter, not one paragraph describing such a change. There is no explanation of how the clear statements of radical monotheism found in the Old Testament could be reinterpreted in light of this new understanding of divine plurality.
We should find at least one church in either Palestine or the Diaspora that struggled to accept this new doctrine of YEHOVAH God. To think that the early Church debated over accepting the Gentile Israelites, keeping "the law of Moses," how to celebrate the bread and wine, the role of women in the church, yet never once had any trouble at all accepting that God is now mysteriously Three instead of One is absurd. Would not some group of Christians resist a change of this magnitude? Yet, what we have instead is a conspiracy of silence -- zero evidence that the Trinity even existed in New Testament times.
Now for some history. Eventually a controversy about whether or not the Messiah was God did break out, but it was in Egypt not in Judea, in the early fourth century not in the first century. This controversy was so severe that no less than 25 councils met specifically to address this issue between AD 318 and 381. Fifteen of them found in favor of Arius who taught that the Messiah was a created being and seven found in favor of Alexander and Athanasius who taught that the Messiah was fully God with no beginning. (Three of them ended in stalemate.) In fact, it was not until Theodosius (the emperor who took office in AD 379) made non-Trinitarian beliefs illegal that the die was cast and orthodox Christianity cemented itself into a rigidly Trinitarian shape. The Church could just as easily have had a Unitarian rather than a Trinitarian creed, but politics, in the end, were the decisive factor. Dogma and power won out, not the Bible. Had the non-Trinitarians been more successful in courting the emperor's favor everything would have been different.
So what are we to make of these facts? Controversies come about when new ideas emerge which conflict with people's long-held and cherished beliefs. The Trinity was certainly a brand new idea which nearly all scholars agree was not taught at all in the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament). Furthermore, the Trinity was totally foreign to the way first-century Judahites thought about YEHOVAH God and the Messiah. So if the Messiah did come on the scene revealing this "truth" where is the evidence of it? We have no passage from the New Testament explaining or even stating the Trinity.
Furthermore, there is no controversy within the church giving evidence that some Christian Israelites rejected it and needed to be persuaded otherwise. In addition, when the Christians traveled abroad as missionaries, supposedly teaching the Trinity among other things, they were met with repeated persecution for a variety of reasons, yet in not one case was there a conflict about whether or not the Messiah was God. Last of all, we do find controversy over defining God, but it is not until much later. I think if we take these historical lines of argumentation together we have solid grounds for rejecting the myth that the Messiah and/or the disciples believed and taught the doctrine of the Trinity.
-- Edited By John D. Keyser.
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