Answering Unitarian Arguments #5: The Argument from History

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series Answering Unitarian Arguments

Having addressed now the arguments from logic and Scripture, I now turn to the final major argument against the Trinity, the argument from history. After this, I will address some other arguments made by Unitarians, but these are rejoinders or defenses against Trinitarian argumentation, not actual arguments for Unitarianism or against Trinitarianism.

The argument from history comes in many forms, but boils down to this: the Trinity and the deity of Christ were unknown to the New Testament Church. In the first few centuries, as gentiles became more and more of a major percentage and majority in the church, they brought their views coming from other sources (Gnosticism, Paganism, Platonic philosophy, etc.) and attempted to add them to Christianity, which twisted the simple, Unitarian monotheism of the original Jewish Christians into something that more closely resembled the paganism they came from. The controversy from these changes resulted in the church convening councils, beginning with the council of Nicea in 325, where Jesus was finally declared to be of one substance with the Father, eternal as the Father is eternal. The council was overseen and directed by the emperor Constantine, who was a pagan convert and imposed his views on the council.

After the council, the view that Jesus was eternally God was enforced by the sword and many were killed to make sure all of Christendom fell in line. The Nicene Creed was incomplete, however, and several other councils had to meet to define Christology more precisely, along with the more complete doctrine of the Trinity. This all took until the Council of Chalcedon in 451. If the Trinity was biblical, it wouldn’t have taken over four hundred years to get it nailed down, and it wouldn’t have had to be spread by the sword. Therefore, the Trinity is false.

Go Back Farther

I am no historian, and so I don’t pretend to be an expert on all things in early Christian history. However, there are many flaws in this story as given by Unitarians and many others with regards to how we got the Trinity. The first one I want to point out is that the story told above, repeated over and over, is that the concept of God evolved from a simple, Unitarian belief into the complex view we have today. But we’ve already looked at evidence that shows this to be a false story. In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are many examples of complexity and plurality with reference to Yahweh. This comes in the form of references to two in the same passage who are God, from passages about the Name of Yahweh as a person distinct from Yahweh, but still in some way Yahweh, from passages about the Angel of Yahweh as a person distinct from Yahweh who is, nonetheless, Yahweh, as well as other titles that fit into this topic, such as the face/presence of Yahweh, the Glory of Yahweh, or the Word of Yahweh. Finally, there is the Rider on the clouds in Daniel 7, who has divine titles only applied to Yahweh, but is also distinct from the Ancient of Days, obviously God.

As we showed in part 2 of this series, it is not Trinitarian Christians who first noticed this plurality. Rather it was Jews, long before the time of Jesus, who noticed these things in their Scriptures and wrote about them extensively. This became known, by Jews, not Christians, as two-powers theology, and was accepted in Judaism until the second century after Jesus. It was only at that time, that the Jews evolved their beliefs to require a more simplified view of God than was previously accepted. Now, of course, this is not to say that the Jews believed in the Trinity as it is believed today, or that all Jews believed in the two-powers view. It is only that it was acceptable to have a more complex view of God, based on the Scriptures, than the simple view Jews hold to today.

The importance of understanding this is crucial to many historically based arguments Unitarians make. Since it was commonly believed that God is complex in some way and there may be more than one Person there, and since this was written about so extensively, the Unitarian actually has no historical grounds to attack Trinitarian arguments from the plurality found in the Old Testament. The historical data show that it is the Unitarian that is out of step with the historical reading of these passages, not the Trinitarian.

Another historical argument, advanced by Sean Finnegan in a video called “5 problems with the Trinity”, is that there was a lack of controversy in the New Testament church concerning who Jesus is. Since the Trinity and Jesus’ deity were so controversial later, why is there no record of that controversy happening in the early days of the church? This is also answered by understanding Jewish two-powers theology. If it was plurality within God, and not Unitarianism, that was the context into which Jesus came, then there would be no controversy in a second figure claiming to be Yahweh. The Jews were speculating in their writings about many possibilities of who might occupy that place. The only controversy would be the fact that a living, breathing human being was making the claim. This would then only be controversial if one did not believe the claim. And what do we see? Believers in Jesus worship Him and call Him God, while unbelievers accuse Him of blasphemy. This is exactly the kind of controversy we would expect based on the actual religious context Jesus entered. Believers would see and hear Jesus and say, “Aha! The second Yahweh figure is the Messiah.” Unbelievers, though, would hear things Jesus said and say, “This is just a man, and he’s blaspheming!” The cultural context and the testimony of the Gospels fit hand-in-glove. So, when Unitarians look for the origins of the Trinity and start after the New Testament era, they are starting too late in history.

A second issue related to going back far enough is to look at what we actually have from the New Testament era in terms of disputes over the nature of Christ. What sorts of controversies happened before the Arian controversy that caused the council of Nicea?

First, all the way back into the New Testament itself, you have the first disputes between Christians and earliest Gnostics. This can be seen in several places, but as it pertains to Jesus, the Gnostics believed that Jesus was a divine, non-human entity that actually preexisted Yahweh. Yahweh was just a “demiurge”, who was a foolish spiritual being who created the world and wanted to do things his way as opposed to higher beings. Jesus was one of those beings, and when he came to earth, the physical form people saw wasn’t really him, but an illusion. So they didn’t believe in the full humanity of Jesus. This was contradicted by John in his second epistle.

2 John 1:7 For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess Jesus Christ coming in the flesh. This person is the deceiver and the antichrist!

Two interesting things about this conflict is that, in the New Testament and in the early Christian writings, you don’t have people saying, “No, Jesus isn’t any more than human. He is just human and not God.” Rather, you have statements like John’s that say, “No, Jesus didn’t just come to fool us that he was human. He really was human and suffered.” This is not a denial of deity, but a denial of illusory humanity. What it means is that the first recorded Christological heresy addressed by Christian leaders was a denial of Jesus’ human nature, not His deity. If church history played out the way that Unitarians say, we wouldn’t have any thought of Jesus being more than human until the time getting closer to Nicea. Rather, what we have is early controversy over whether he was really human.

Some Unitarians do address this and say that it was the influence of the Gnostics that partially led to the thought of Jesus as God. The problem with this argument is that, if this were some new idea, you would have Christians writing against the “Gnostic” idea of a divine Jesus. And, probably, it would happen in the New Testament, since other early Gnostic beliefs were already being challenged by then. Instead, there is no discussion of the Gnostics calling Jesus a god or divine being, precisely because that was not the point in contention. If lack of controversy proves anything, then it proves that the earliest Christians, while willing to write prolifically against the Gnostics on a host of issues, never, from the earliest times, found any controversy in what Gnostics said about a divine Jesus.

The second pre-Nicene controversy was that of Sabellianism, or modalism. That view began, as many of the other, later controversies did, as an attempt to protect monotheism by saying that Jesus just was the Father. In other words, instead of the Trinitarian view that God exists in three Persons, the modalistic view is that He is just one Person, but that Person is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That way He is God, but without any plurality within God. This controversy didn’t take a council to solve, and was dealt with other ways, so that, by the time of Nicea, there was no question about the three Persons truly being three. Notice again, though, that it was not Jesus’ deity being called into question, but this time His distinctness from the Father. So in both of the first two Christological controversies, Jesus was already seen as God, and other things were being denied.

What the historical record actually shows is that it wasn’t until Arius, over three centuries into church history, when someone came along and presented a real challenge to the Deity of Jesus. Arius was also trying to preserve monotheism, not accepting that the Trinitarian view common in that day was monotheistic. Arius didn’t have the same view as modern Unitarians when it comes to Jesus, though. He was certainly Unitarian in his view of God, namely that there is just one Person who is God, but Arius believed that Jesus was created in the distant past, before the rest of creation, and that God created everything else through Him. Jesus was a very unique, exalted, and much more than human being to Arius. So, what we learn from this is that it took over three centuries to get to a Unitarian God who didn’t include Jesus as God, but the modern Unitarian view of a strictly human Jesus was still a long way off, not to be developed until even much later.

Unitarians may challenge this, and I invite them to, but if their beliefs were truly the original Christian view, we have plenty of evidence that the early Christians were willing to fight for their views. All I would ask is that the Unitarian produce citations of early church writers that explicitly fight against the idea that Jesus is God, or that fight against any preexistence for Jesus, that he was strictly human. If that is done, wonderful for the Unitarian, but remember, there are also clear statements that Jesus is God coming from the earliest Christians writing (see the next section below for some examples). That would need to be reconciled, and it would be a question of how it is that these beliefs coexisted for so long. Remember, Trinitarians believe the Trinity is true because of the Bible, so the mere existence of false beliefs pose no challenge to it. However, if the earliest Christians believed Jesus is God, and no citations can be produced that explicitly deny this, then the Unitarian historical argument is an argument from historical evidence that literally has no evidence to support it.

Know What You’re Looking For

The Unitarian story above reflects a common charge that the “Trinity” was not believed until near 451 at the last of the councils that addressed the topic. It was after that council that a creed was written that includes much of the language used today about “being” and “persons” and the fuller doctrine was described in detail.

The question, though, is not when someone wrote a creed that specifically contained all or most of the Trinitarian distinctives. The question is, at what time did people believe everything the Trinity actually is? In my previous article about the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, I made the point that the creeds are not really the biblical definition of the Trinity, but rather explanations to try to answer certain questions about it that came up at that time. The biblical definition really just boils down to several individual statements that were all affirmed by Christians from the beginning. They didn’t need all of the language of later councils because they were not addressing opponents who denied these things at the time. What they believed, from the beginning, was:

  1. Yahweh is unique as creator and redeemer. There is no other god like Him
  2. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each identified as Yahweh in various ways.
  3. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are personally distinct from one another.

And concerning Jesus, they believed:

  1. Jesus is truly God in nature.
  2. Jesus is truly human in nature.
  3. Jesus is one Person.

When considered individually, there is strong evidence, not only from the Scriptures, but from early Christian writings, that these things were believed. Early church scholar Larry Hurtado has done a lot of work looking into the devotion to Jesus in the earliest times of the church, and there is no question that Jesus was worshipped and prayed to from the very beginning. Unitarians may object that their theology doesn’t prohibit this, and that’s fine, if they want to do that, but they cannot deny the evidence that people have believed these statements as far back as we have any records for. As a sample, consider some of the following:

Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians, 12:2 – Now may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the eternal high priest himself, the Son of God Jesus Christ, build you up in faith and truth…and to us with you, and to all those under heaven who will yet believe in our Lord and God Jesus Christ and in his Father who raised him from the dead.

Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians, 7.2 – There is only one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn,God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians, 18.2 – For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to God’s plan, both from the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit.

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 128 – And that Christ being Lord, and God the Son of God, and appearing formerly in power as Man, and Angel, andin the glory of fire as at the bush, so also was manifested at the judgment executed on Sodom, has been demonstrated fully by what has been said.

All of these and more could be added. These men here quoted were born in or at the end of the first century, no more than 60 years after Jesus lived. Polycarp and Ignatius were both disciples of the Apostle John. These men were long dead before the council of Nicea, but fully believed in the deity of Jesus. Notice also that Justin Martyr even makes explicit the two-powers theology discussed earlier, by clearly saying that Jesus is the Angel of Yahweh who appeared in the burning bush to Moses.

The fact is, we have no reason to suspect anything to be missing in the early church from the definitional statements of the Trinity above. It is the Unitarian who is missing the most important affirmations and denials that mark out their theology.

A Self-Defeating Historical Argument

One big problem with this type of historical argument is that it makes demands of history, that it should be a certain way in order for us to believe a certain way. This is history determining biblical doctrine. And that cuts both ways. There are many things Unitarians believe that they cannot trace back to either the Bible or early church history. For example, Unitarians like to describe their theology by saying they believe in one God, the Father, and His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. However, Trinitarians can also affirm that same statement, just with different meanings for some of the words than what Unitarians use today. To make things explicit, Unitarians have to say that they believe Jesus is God’s human Son and not God. This explicit of a statement does not appear in Scripture, and I’m not aware of any early church writer who said it. Perhaps someone could be found, but they would exist alongside other of the earliest writers who said Jesus is God, so there’s no proof of priority for the Unitarian view.

A second distinctively Unitarian belief is the idea that we can worship Jesus, but not as God, and that we can pray to Jesus. These activities that are normally reserved for God are said to be ok with Jesus because God sent Him as Messiah. But again, we don’t have any explicit teaching, whether from Scripture or in the early church, that draws a distinction between worship of God and worship-but-not-as-God of Jesus. Nor do we have a teaching explaining why it’s ok to pray to and worship Jesus even though He isn’t God. There’s plenty of explanation coming from Unitarians today, but why would it be that in the earliest church in the New Testament, among Jews who were accustomed only to worship and prayer to God, we do not have any explanation of why this has changed with regard to Jesus? People just start worshiping and praying to Him, and this isn’t a problem for anybody? It is a favorite argument of Unitarians to say that the Trinity isn’t all laid out in one place in Scripture or in the early church writers, but then, neither are any of these distinctively Unitarian teachings laid out in the way they demand of the Trinity. If it works against the Trinity, it works even more against the Unitarian, since those distinctives are arguably not found until the 16th century, much later than Trinitarian thought.

An Incomplete, Unfounded Story

The story above encapsulates most of what you will find among Unitarians talking about the history of the development of the Trinity. The problem is, it is not complete. I’ve already addressed the fact that it does not mention that religious devotion to Jesus as God is found in the very earliest writings we have, and, while the word “Trinity” may not have been from the beginning, the truths of the Trinity were believed from the beginning.

In addition to this, though, there are other historical facts that are often overlooked by Unitarians putting forward this argument. I’ve heard from many Unitarians that the Trinity was spread “by force”, or “by the sword”, and if it’s God’s truth it shouldn’t be getting spread that way. Now, of course, whether or not it’s true that some people used sinful means to spread a belief bears no relation to whether that belief is true, so this is a fallacious argument to begin with, but that’s not the only problem.

The reasons are many why this historical account is suspect, including that we don’t have any record of all the specific discussions and arguments given during the council of Nicea, and so when Unitarians blame Constantine, or pagan influences on the outcome, they are doing so without any actual evidence. What we do have seems to indicate that, for the most part, the bishops who went already believed in the full deity and eternal nature of the Son, and this is why the accounts we have say that only 2 bishops attending the council did not sign the creed.

Also missing from the story is the fact that, despite the unity of the bishops at the council, the Arians, whose position was the primary reason for the conflict that led to the council itself, did not stop teaching their doctrine, and they ended up gaining a lot of power after the council, far more than they had before. Jerome said of the decades after the council that “The whole world groaned to find itself Arian”. During this time, Athanasius, who was a secretary for Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria at the council, became more prominent and vocal in defense of the full Deity of Christ. He had, sometime after the council, become the bishop of Alexandria himself, but was removed from his position on more than one occasion for his refusal to accept the Arian view.

So, even assuming that what the Unitarians say about the Trinity being enforced was true, the fact is that both sides are guilty of this. What this should teach us is that we must not make decisions about what is true based on whether people do bad things in the name of that belief. Alas, these simple facts of history will not stop Unitarians from trying to make just that argument. If you can’t consistently apply the same standard to both positions, then the argument has failed and should be abandoned. And I would ask anyone arguing against the Trinity by appeal to what people did in the past, knowing that both sides did bad things, why would you still use a failed argument if you are so convinced of your position by better ones?

Scripture Versus History

Finally, for some Unitarians, there is a way of presenting this argument that pits Scripture against history, or, at the very least, allows later history to impact one’s interpretation of Scripture. It is one thing for liberal scholars like Bart Ehrman (who Unitarians like to quote) to theorize about the development of the Trinity, since they try to date the New Testament as late as possible and they do not take it to be the words of God. For someone who claims to hold to the Scriptures as inspired by God, there is a danger of placing the events of history above the words of Scripture in one’s thinking.

Of course, I cannot see into hearts and I do not claim that anyone in particular is certainly doing this. I bring it up because, in my own journey, the historical argument was one of the more important ones I leaned on for why I was a Unitarian. Victor Paul Wierwille, the founder of the Way International, in his book, Jesus Christ is Not God, begins his book with the historical argument, not with any Scriptural one. This practice can be seen often among other Unitarians, as well. This doesn’t mean that every Unitarian puts history above Scripture, but there is no question that this argument is a major part of why many Unitarians reject the Trinity. It was so important in my thinking, that, during the time when I was studying the Scriptures and was moving toward Trinitarian belief, there was a short period when I actually believed that the Scriptures taught the Trinity and that Jesus was God, but no Christians believed this until the Council of Nicea. I knew this was wildly improbable and even illogical. Of course, if Scripture taught the Trinity, that would mean that the Apostles believed and taught it as well, and so my beliefs could not be reconciled. I knew this was the case, and so didn’t stay there for long, looking deeper into the history and found that, indeed, the truths that make up the Trinity were, in fact, believed from the beginning.

I would ask any Unitarians reading this to examine their reasons for their beliefs and honestly ask why they believe what they do. Perhaps the story told by Unitarians about the history of the Trinity isn’t accurate. And even if parts of it are, shouldn’t our theological commitments come from Scripture? Ask yourself, is the historical information and interpretation in your thinking impacting you’re willingness to examine and entertain the arguments and evidence from Scripture that favor the deity of Christ and the Trinity? I ask because I know it affected me.

In the end, if Scripture teaches the Trinity, then history cannot overthrow that. And Trinitarians are aware of history as well. They look at the same data and tell a different story. But the situation between the Trinitarian and Unitarian looking at history is not equal. For the Trinitarian, it is Scripture that teaches the Trinity, but understanding some of the implications, along with conflicts that led to the councils that discussed those implications, took time. Trinitarians are not impacted by the bad behavior of people, whether in councils or after councils. The truth of the Trinity never depended on councils. The Unitarian, on the other hand, has built up a story of how the Trinity came to pass, and, for many of them, that story is a huge reason for rejecting the Trinity. That is why you so rarely get a balanced view of what happened at various councils. The purpose of looking at history is not to learn what happened, but to look for ways to incriminate Trinitarians at every chance. I’m not saying this is all Unitarians, but when you reject a doctrine as unbiblical because of things that happened after the Bible was written, you open yourself up to inconsistency in argumentation. The historical argument fails on many counts, but most especially when it is meant to carry too much weight.

Series Navigation<< Answering Unitarian Arguments #4: Argument from Scriptures that Describe Jesus as a Distinct Person or as a Human BeingAnswering Unitarian Arguments #6: The Shaliach Defense >>

1 thought on “Answering Unitarian Arguments #5: The Argument from History”

Comments are closed.