4 Why The Trinity Was Accepted

In my opinion, the Biblical evidence against the trinity is compelling. And yet the majority of professing Christians are trinitarian; and moreover, they stigmatize non-trinitarians as non-Christian, many claiming that non-trinitarians are automatically a ‘sect’. Clearly enough, neither the word ‘trinity’ nor the wording of the trinitarian formula were known to New Testament Christianity. In a sense, Jesus ‘became’ God to many Christians all because a group of bishops decided it was so. But why did this happen? And why was there so much angst to label those who didn’t accept the trinity as heretics? Having read around the history of the early centuries of Christianity, the following are some suggested reasons.

1. Accommodation To Paganism

From earliest times, paganism featured many gods often subsumed beneath or within one apparently greater god. Each tribe or territory had their own god, but as they were subsumed within other tribes by conquest or some other form of domination, their god became subsumed beneath the god of the dominant tribe or nation. Thus there developed pantheons of gods, and yet within the pantheons there was often a hierarchy, and a desire to insist on one hand that the god of the subdued people still existed, and yet on the other hand, an insistence that the god of the dominant group was supreme. It was generally accepted that there was a "communion of blood and soil" between a nation and their god, in that their god was connected to the land or territory upon which that god's people lived (1). Hence Naaman wanted to take some soil from Israel back to Syria to symbolize how the God of Israel was his God (2 Kings 5:17). When tribes were taken into captivity, or conquerors came and lived in their land, the gods had to somehow be accomodated within a religious system. And so began the idea of 'godheads'. The mysterious, ill defined relationships between the members of the supposed 'Trinity' are very similar to those assumed within the godheads of paganism. Apologists for the Trinity are all divided about the nature of the relationships between Father, Son and Holy Spirit; this is a weak point in the whole idea. And the very same difficulty is encountered by any who would wish to explain or defend the gods within the pagan godheads. Further, it becomes apparent from the literature and sculptured art of early paganism that gods, animals and humans all tend to get mixed up; half-human and half-god. Again, we can see how this came to be reflected in Trinitarian views of Jesus.

It was a mixture of paganism and Christianity which made the changeover from paganism to nominal Christianity less controversial and more painless. I’ve given some specific examples of this in a European context below. Many scholars have pointed out that the idea of a Divine figure coming to earth to redeem the faithful was a very common pagan myth in the Middle East of the first century (2). It's easy to see how early Christians would've been tempted to claim that Christ was some form of pre-existent God in order to make their beliefs accommodate the surrounding paganism- and it's understandable that some would've been eager to misinterpret Bible passages to this end.

The idea of a 'trinity' of gods was widespread in paganism. The Egyptians had three main gods, Osiris, Isis and Horus. Horus was in turn divided into 3 parts or persons:

Horus - the King
Horus - Ra
Horus - the Scarabaeus.

Likewise the Hindu Vedas of around 1000 BC claimed that one God existed in three forms:

Agni - Fire, presiding over the earth
Indra - the Firmament, presiding over the mid-air
Surya - The Sun. presiding over the Heavens.

In later Hinduism, the 'trimurti' or trinity of gods became:

Brahma - the creative power
Vishnu - the preserving power
Siva - the transforming power.

So when Theophilus, bishop of Antioch introdcued the word 'trias' to Christian literature for the first time in AD170, and the word 'trinitas' was first used by Tertullian in AD200, they were importing pagan concepts which were familiar and had been for millenia.

Barry Cunliffe (3) notes “the prevalence of tripilism in Celtic religion… The ‘power of three’ was frequently expressed in iconography, as, for example, in the three-faced stone head from Corleck, Cavan, in Ireland or the tricephalic deity depicted on the pot from Bavay in northern France, but it is also found as a recurring motif- the triskele- in Celtic art. The concept is made even more specific in the Romano-British and Gallo-Roman religion in the form of the Deae Matres or the Matronae- the three mother goddesses- who together form a unity representing strength, power and fertility. Another but less widespread female trinity are the Saluviae, who preside over springs… inscriptions to the Lugoves in Switzerland and Spain may well refer to a triple form of Lugh. In the Insular literature of Ireland, tripilism is a recurring theme. The great goddess, the Morrigan in her plural form, the Morrigna, resolves into three: Morrigan, Badb, and Nemain. Brigit and Macha also occur as triads. It is tempting to wonder if the threefold division proposed by Lucan, of Esus, Teutates, and Taranis, is a further expression of Celtic tripilism”.

So it’s not surprising that the idea of God as a trinity was easily accepted in Europe- the one true God had been adapted to the pagan background culture, rather than Bible truth being allowed to define our beliefs. The more one searches, the more one finds evidence of what Cunliffe calls “tripilisms”, pagan godheads that occurred in three forms or persons. Examples include: the “three legs of Mann” on the Isle of Mann, which symbol is also found on coins found in Italy and Asia Minor from before the time of Christ; the triple knot inscriptions [called the Triquetra] and the “Triskel” symbol, again a reference to some primitive form of ‘trinity’, found in inscriptions and art forms throughout Brittany, Ireland and Western Britain. There's a small plaque of schist from Bath, England with three female figures representing the ‘three mothers’, a triad of deities. These triads of mother goddesses were common in the West of Britain in the early Roman period, probably reflecting an earlier Iron Age tradition. The original is in the Roman Baths Museum in Bath UK.

Greek Influence

Greek mythology was well known, and formed the background for the early Christian converts. It was full of legends relating how young men sacrificed themselves in the prime of life, winning victories against superhuman odds, and then resurrected, ascended to 'heaven' and turned into gods who were to be worshipped on earth. Heracles is the classic example, but Martin Hengel lists many others (4). It's easy to see how people who had heard something of the Christian Gospel, but were not aware or didn't pay attention to the content of the word itself, came to confuse the story of Jesus with these kinds of myths and legends. And so they ended up seeing Jesus as a God, one of many... and the fatal step towards Trinitarian doctrine was thus natural and easy for them. Again, if they had paid attention to the actual words of the Christian message, they'd have seen the crucial difference between those myths, and the startling reality of the real Christ. But because they paid insufficient attention to God's word in the Gospel, they ended up understanding the Christian story in terms of the surrounding mythology, rather than giving God's word its' full weight and seeing Christ freestanding, as the unique Son of God whom He was.

Roman Influence

Around AD8, Ovid published his collection of poems called Metamorphoses. They are full of tales of how gods descended to earth, incarnated as men, and then went back to Heaven. Jupiter and Mercury were supposed to have come to earth, unrecognized as men, and were supposedly entertained by Baucis and Philemon. These ideas were common in the first century- hence when Paul and Barnabas did miracles (Acts 14:11), the people assumed they were Hermes and Zeus (the Greek equivalent of Mercury and Jupiter). Note, of course, how fervently Paul denied this! Cicero wrote to the governor of Asia and encouraged him to act as if he were one of the Divine men who supposedly came to earth from Heaven (Ad Quintem Fratrem I.i.7). Horace in B.C.30 addressed Caesar Augustus as Mercury incarnate, and wrote that the son of Mercury was to come down from Heaven and 'expiate human guilt' (Odes I.2). Vergil in 40 B.C. made a similar prophecy that "was later interpreted as a Messianic prophecy by Christians" (5). I find all this highly significant. The ideas of a pre-existent God coming to earth as man, as a saviour, expiating human guilt etc., were all pagan ideas. And it is these very ideas which were seized upon by Christians and later made respectable [in orthodox Christian terms] as the doctrine of the trinity. A hard question to trinitarians would be: 'How do you explain the huge similarities between your beliefs and those of pagan Greece and Rome at the time of Jesus?'. This question hits the harder when the admission is finally forced that the New Testament itself is silent about the trinity, incarnation, God becoming man, personal pre-existence of Jesus etc. And the question acquires fatal force when it is demonstrated that the few New Testament passages used to shore up trinitarianism are in fact examples of the apostles quoting or alluding to the pagan myths in order to debunk them. I have exemplified that point frequently in these studies- see, e.g., my comments on Philippians 2.

The Roman policy was not to deride the gods of the peoples they conquered but rather to introduce them into their religious systems. "Local gods would be merged into the Roman pantheon- a provincial god of thunder could simply be seen as Zeus or Jupiter in a different guise- with the result that a complex of interlocking rituals and scared sites could sustain local cultures without undermining Roman supremacy" (6). When Rome adopted Christianity, this mindset continued- hence the willingness to import 'tripilisms' of local pagan cultures into Constantine's version of Christianity. In order to enforce unity of belief in the Roman empire, there began a program of church building after the time of Constantine. "In this way a pagan custom, the worship of gods through impressive buildings, was transferred successfully into Christianity. Such display was completely alien to the Christian tradition..." (7). Theodosius followed Constantine in trying to ensure that Trinitarian Christianity was the one and only state religion. This meant campaigns against paganism as well as Trinitarian Christians. But these campaigns inevitably met resistance; and the Roman empire sought compromise to their advantage wherever possible. Thus a law was passed forbidding the lighting of lamps in front of pagan sacred places; but instead it was permitted to light lamps in front of Christian altars and tombs. Jerome justified this by teaching that pagan practices were acceptable when done in a Christian context.

Remember that the trinity was adopted at the Council of Nicea in AD325. This Council was called by Constantine after he decided he wished to turn the official religion of the Roman empire from paganism to Christianity. Not long before that Council, Christians had been cruelly persecuted. Some of the delegates at that Council even bore on their faces and in their bodies the marks of that persecution. The pagans had [falsely] accused the Christians of making Jesus into a God whom they worshipped. Pliny had reported how they “chant antiphonally a hymn to Christ as to a god” (8). In the pagan Roman world, only the Jews refused to worship other gods on the basis that there was only one true God. The fact the Christians did the same led to the perception that they too thought that there was only one God, just that they called Him ‘Christ’. The Jews likewise wrongly assumed that anyone claiming to be the Son of God was claiming to be God (Jn. 10:33-36; 19:7)- even though Jesus specifically corrected them over this! As often happens, the perceptions of a group by their enemies often come to define how the group perceive themselves. Constantine was a politician and a warrior. He wasn’t a Bible student, nor a theologian, in fact he wasn’t even a very serious Christian (9). Although he accepted Christianity, he said he didn’t want to be baptized because he wanted to continue in sin. He seems to have figured that Christianity was the right thing for the empire. So, Christianity, here we come. Constantine, and many others who jumped on the ‘Christian’ bandwagon, shared the perception of Christ which had existed in the pagan world which they had grown up in. And the pagan perception, as Pliny and many others make clear, was that Jesus was a kind of God. And so when Constantine presided over the dispute amongst the bishops at Nicea about who Jesus was, he naturally assumed that the ‘Jesus is God Himself’ party were in fact traditional Christians.


(1) H. Renckens, Israel's Concept of the Beginning: The Theology of Genesis 1-3 (New York: Herder & Herder, 1964) p. 69. Chapter 6 of Renckens' book exemplifies in more detail this development of 'godheads' within paganism.

(2) Barry Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts (London: Penguin, 1999) p. 17
(3) Rudolph Bultmann, Theology Of The New Testament (New York: Scribner's, 1965) Vol. 1 p. 166; F.B.Craddock, The Pre-Existence Of Christ In The New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 1968); M. Wiles, The Remaking Of Christian Doctrine (London: S.C.M., 1974) Chapter 3.

(4) Martin Hengel, The Cross Of The Son Of God (London: S.C.M., 1986) pp. 192-194.

(5) Frances Young, in John Hick, ed., The Myth Of God Incarnate (London: S.C.M., 1977) p. 97.

(6) Charles Freeman, AD381: Heretics, Pagans And The Christian State (London: Pimlico, 2008) p.18.

(7) Freeman, ibid p. 48.

(8) Pliny (the Younger), Epistles 10.96. English translation in A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrative Of The History of The Church To AD 337, ed. J. Stevenson (London: S.P.C.K., 1974) pp. 13-15.

(9) There's strong historical evidence that Constantine was scarcely a Christian himself by the time of the Council of Nicea. The idea is commonly held that he saw a vision of Christ at the battle of Milvan Bridge in AD312 and then converted to Christianity in gratitude, especially as Christ supposedly told him to lead his soldiers with the sign of the cross. However, there is serious evidence against this. After the battle, he claimed that "The supreme deity" had helped him, and he placed "the heavenly sign of God" on his soldier's shields. But historical sources dating from soon after the battle state that this sign was not the cross, but the chi-ro sign, or labarum- the emblem of the sun god. It was only many years later that Eusebius wrote a biography of Constantine, in which he claimed that this had actually been the sign of the cross. After the battle in AD312, Constantine erected a triumphal arch opposite the Colosseum in Rome to celebrate the victory- and covered it with reliefs of Mars, Jupiter, Hercules [the gods of war], and ascribed victory to the power of the Sun god. Depictions of the battle show no soldier with any cross on his shield! As late as AD320, Constantine's coins represented him with the crown of the 'Sol Invictus', the Sun god cult. And was it co-incidence that he declared December 25th, the main festival of the 'Sol Invictus', as the birthday of Jesus? Further, his new capital, Constantinople, was committed to the care of the local protecting deities, Rhea and Tyche- Constantine built temples for them all over his new capital.


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