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Showing posts with label Trinity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Trinity. Show all posts

Monday 27 August 2018

Why the Trinity Just Doesn’t Make Sense to Christadelphians

Guest Article by Matthew J. Farrar

Introduction

The denial of the Trinity doctrine is arguably one of the strongest identity markers of Christadelphians.1   Christadelphian arguments against the Trinity typically follow one of three lines:2
  1. Jesus is not the Father and is therefore not God.
  2. Jesus is a man and is therefore not God.
  3. The Trinity is inconsistent with the Scriptures' absolute insistence on monotheism.
The first objection is actually based on an erroneous conflation of Modalism3—a doctrine holding that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three modes of operation of a single divine person—with the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, which holds that there are three distinct, eternal persons who share a Divine nature. The second objection similarly conflates the doctrine of Christ’s Divinity with a denial of His humanity, whereas orthodox Christology emphatically affirms Christ’s humanity.4

However, in conversations with Christadelphians—and indeed my own experience as a former Christadelphian—by far the most compelling arguments against the Trinity are based on the third issue of monotheism. Undoubtedly, the Scriptures insist on an uncompromising monotheism.5 It therefore appears that the Trinity doctrine is a violation of basic common sense: if God is one, then God cannot be three, and if He is three, He cannot be one. An answer in The Christadelphian Advocate's Question Box feature succinctly exemplifies this objection:
The Bible is so clear on this matter it is a puzzle as to how anyone can conclude anything about a godhead consisting of three beings, acting independently of each other yet still together, as one single being. The idea that the three were co-existent as well as co-equal and each a part of the Supreme Being destroys the beauty of the Father/Son relationship that is so emphatically detailed in the Scriptures.
The objection is clear enough: to say that three beings are actually one being is a contradiction, and a rather obvious one at that. So why is it that orthodox Christians hold to this doctrine when it seems to be at odds with basic common sense?

An Important Assumption

What is tacitly assumed but not acknowledged in the Christadelphian line of reasoning is that the God of the Bible is rightly understood to be a being. That is to say, there are many beings (e.g. angels, humans, animals), and God is regarded as another being, albeit a unique and supreme Being who exceeds all other beings in power, knowledge, wisdom, goodness, etc. It is precisely under this assumption that the Christadelphian argument against the Trinity are so compelling: 
  1. A "being" is the broadest classification possible.
  2. Therefore, distinct persons are beings.
  3. "God" is a being.
  4. Therefore "God" is either one person and one being or three persons and three beings. He cannot be three persons but one being.
  5. Since the Scriptures affirm that God is One (being), the Trinity is false.
So how is it that the Church came to affirm the Trinity doctrine despite this glaring problem? The answer lies in that the Church does not consider God to be a being, but rather, being itself.

Nominalism: The Roots of a Theological Revolution

Believe it or not, the roots of this issue go back to the 14th century, a time prior to but very influential on the Reformation. This era ushered in a new philosophical position known as nominalism, a philosophy that is widely held—though seldom explicitly recognized—today. At its core, nominalism denies the real existence of universals. To understand what a universal is, consider the drawing below.


We would all quickly identify this drawing as a triangle, but on what basis? There are two basic answers to this question. The first is that there is a universal triangle, of which this particular triangle is a manifestation or instantiation. In other words, something is a triangle in the measure that it conforms to the universal triangle. The second answer—that of nominalism—is that there are simply a collection of objects which we call “triangles”, and this happens to be one of them. However, nominalists would claim that this classification is more or less one of convenience and therefore there is no such thing as the essential nature of a triangle.

To see the impact of this thinking in our own day, consider two hot-button issues: marriage and gender. Those who believe that universals are real—called realists—hold that heterosexual marriage and gender (male and female) are real universals. As such, a particular marriage is an actual marriage in the measure that it conforms to this universal and is a particular instantiation of it. Similarly, realists hold that a man is a man on the basis that he is an instantiation of a particular universal, namely, a male nature (and similarly for a woman).

In contrast, the nominalist perspective asserts that there are merely a collection of relationships called “marriages.” Therefore, to redefine marriage beyond monogamous heterosexual marriage is simply to broaden the usage of the word “marriage”. Similarly, “man” and “woman” are mere labels applied to groups of persons, and so the labels can be applied differently or new labels may be created as needed.

Now since nominalists deny the existence of universals, and natures are universals, it follows that nominalists deny the existence of natures. Thus, under this rubric there is no universal human nature (i.e. humanity) of which all human beings are instantiations; there are simply a collection of beings that we call “humans” just as there are three-sided objects that we call triangles. More to the point, if there is no such real thing as a nature, then there is also no such thing as a real divine nature: only a being we call “God,”6 and the phrase “the divine nature” simply becomes a shorthand for His personal attributes. Consequently, to acknowledge three divine persons is necessarily to acknowledge three divine beings, since “divine” and “persons” are again merely labels and “being” is simply the least restrictive classification possible.

Since Christadelphians—like most of the Western World—tend to be involuntary nominalists with respect to their conception of God,7 8 the Trinity doctrine appears to present an insurmountable contradiction. Nominalist Trinitarians attempt to circumvent a contradiction by false appeals to the mystery of the doctrine,9 while Christadelphians deny the mystery of the doctrine by appeals to the contradiction.

But what if we reject nominalism in the first place?

God is Being itself, not one being among many

Since nominalism was an innovation of the 14th century, it follows that the formulators of the Trinity doctrine in the first five centuries of the Church were not and could not have been nominalists. For example, the Nicene Creed states that Jesus is “one in substance/essence/nature with the Father.” Of course, this formulation necessarily assumes that natures are real! Even the Arians of the 4th Century—those opposing the divinity of Christ at the First Council of Nicea—did not dispute the real existence of natures, but instead argued that Christ was of a different, inferior nature from that of the Father. Semi-Arianism, a subsequent attempt at a compromise position, declared the Son to be of “like nature” (homoiousios) to the Father rather than of the same nature (homoousios) as the Nicene Creed affirmed.10 Thus, opponents of Christ's true divinity in the fourth century were not raising the so-called “common sense” objections outlined above.

Moreover, if nominalism is rejected, then we may also reasonably deny that God is one being among other beings.11 Instead, following the revelation of the divine name, “I AM” (Exodus 3:14), the Church teaches that God is "the act of to be" itself.12 Thus, while I am a being, God is being itself. If this sounds unfathomable, perhaps we have not taken God’s transcendence seriously enough. God is not merely greater than us by degree but is utterly beyond us, of a different order. If the notion that “God is being itself” seems too abstract to grasp, consider by analogy the assertion that “God is love” (1 John 4:16). The Biblical claim is not merely that “God is extremely loving” or “God has a lot of love”; love is not merely an abstract attribute that exists apart from God and that God has more of than anyone else. Love is essential to God’s nature, and does not exist apart from God. We are capable of love only because God has shared his love with us (1 John 4:19). The same is true of being, of existence. God is not merely a supreme being, i.e. one who has the attribute of existence (and other dependent attributes such as power, wisdom and love) in greater quality or quantity than others. Rather, God is existence; nothing exists except from him and through him and for him (Rom. 11:36; Heb. 2:10).

Given this understanding of God, the “common sense” rejection of the Trinity no longer holds for the following reasons. 

First, monotheism is actually a consequence of this understanding, not a condition imposed upon it. While we cannot truly comprehend what it means for God to be “to be itself”, it’s simply impossible to have more than one sheer act of being itself. Thus, it is rigorously consistent with Scriptural affirmations of monotheism.

Second, the key tenets of the Trinity doctrine—that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-eternal and co-equal in nature—also follow directly from this understanding of God. It would be a contradiction in terms to say, for example, that the Son is the sheer act of being but not co-eternal with the Father, who is also the sheer act of being. Nor would it be possible to say that the Son is co-eternal with the Father but not the sheer act of being, since that would mean that a being exists always with being itself, which is also a contradiction. Thus, the doctrine that God is “to be itself” and the joint doctrines of consubstantiality (i.e. the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have the same nature) and co-eternality are logical consequences, not additionally imposed doctrines.

Finally—and most importantly for the present discussion—the existence of distinct divine persons is no longer equated with the existence of distinct divine beings. Rather, within the divine nature (i.e. the sheer act of to be) we can discern three distinct persons, but at no point are there any beings involved, only the act of to be itself. Do we really comprehend what that means? No, and that is why the doctrine is truly and properly called a mystery. However, the contradiction suggested by the original argument is dissolved.

Concluding Remarks

The philosophical system of nominalism developed in the late Middle Ages, long after the creedal statements surrounding the Trinity doctrine were constructed, but its popularity—especially amongst the Reformers—was widespread. Not surprisingly then, Christadelphian objections to the Trinity doctrine on the basis of “common sense” appeals to Scriptural statements of absolute monotheism tacitly—if not unwittingly—assume an underlying nominalist philosophy, namely that God is one being amongst many other beings. This is an important observation since some Christadelphians (perhaps relying on Col. 2:8)13 view “philosophy” as a by-word, a distraction to be avoided. What this article has shown, however, is that all of us—Christadelphians included—engage in philosophy and what we may prefer to call “common sense” actually rests on our own philosophical presuppositions. My hope is that a greater awareness of this philosophical framework will open channels of future discourse.
  • 1 Though not entirely unique. Biblical Unitarians essentially agree entirely with Christadelphians on this point, while Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Oneness Pentecostals share in the denial of the Trinity doctrine but do not share in Christadelphian theology and/or Christology. The Christadelphian doctrine of God underwent considerable evolution in the early period of the movement. The founder of the sect, Dr. John Thomas, held a somewhat ineffable doctrine of God that he thought was captured by the Greek word phanerĊsis. While Dr. Thomas's ideas still have currency with some Christadelphians, the main stream of the movement has long since moved toward something closer to Socinianism or (biblical) Unitarianism—doctrines that Dr. Thomas emphatically repudiated!
  • 2 For example, see here.
  • 3 This view is also known as Sabellianism because it was taught by Sabellius, a 3rd-century priest. He was excommunicated for his teaching by Pope Callixtus I.
  • 4 Refer to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed defined at the fourth-century ecumenical councils of Nicea and Constantinople, and the Christological Definition reached at the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon.
  • 5 Historians of religion debate exactly when monotheism developed in Israelite religion; some earlier texts may suggest a belief closer to henotheism (allegiance to only one God, without necessarily denying the existence of others—see, e.g., Psalm 95:3). In any case, strong exclusive claims about “one God” that are synonymous with monotheism are present in Second Temple Jewish texts and in the New Testament (e.g., Mark 12:32).
  • 6 Granted, a very impressive being, even a Supreme Being. However, this being differs from us only in degree (e.g. we have limited power, while God has unlimited power) not by nature, since nominalists deny the existence of natures.
  • 7 As evidenced by the quotation above which starts from the use of the word “beings.”
  • 8 I wish to be clear that I do not mean this disparagingly. My point is merely that certain philosophical presuppositions are present in all arguments.
  • 9 This was blatantly the case in the writings of William of Ockham.
  • 10 Semi-Arianism was condemned at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D., but by that time the three Cappadocian Fathers (St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa) had succeeded through theological dialogue in persuading most of the Semi-Arians to return to the catholic faith.
  • 11 To be precise, while other beings have a real nature, we rightly say that God is His nature. In other words, I, as a human being, am a particular instantiation of a human nature. God, on the other hand, is not an instantiation of a divine nature, but rather, He is the divine nature.
  • 12 Ipsum esse subsistens, in the Latin of St. Thomas Aquinas.
  • 13 Of course, Paul does not here condemn philosophy itself, but only philosophy that is contrary to Christ and therefore false. Paul’s own willingness to enter into philosophical discourse is on vivid display in the account of his speech at the Areopagus (Acts 17). For a defense of the use of Greek philosophy by the early Church, see here.

Monday 9 January 2017

Review of "When Jesus became God" by Richard E. Rubenstein

1. Author, Genre and Scope
2. Overall Reaction
3. Some Criticisms
4. Reception of the book among experts
5. Reception of the book among unitarians
6. Conclusion


One of the gifts I received for the Christmas just passed was a book from my dear sister Sarah entitled, When Jesus became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome, by Prof. Richard E. Rubenstein (New York: Harcourt, 1999; paperback, body text 231 pages). Apparently the book was separately published with the slightly more provocative subtitle The Epic Fight over Christ's Divinity in the Last Days of Rome. Having finished the book, I thought I would write a detailed review since the topic of the book—the Arian controversy in the fourth century—is of general theological interest to me and (I suspect) most people who read my blog.

This is not an expert review. I am not particularly well-read about the Arian controversy or fourth-century Church history more broadly, so I am not in a position either to vouch for or criticize many of its historical claims. My insights are offered from the point of view of one who has some theological training, is fairly knowledgeable about Church history and theological developments in the first and second centuries, and has a deep personal interest in the theological issues involved. Specifically, I have moved over time from a Christology probably on the outer fringes of what Rubenstein calls "radical Arianism" (one that is uneasy about applying the term theos to Christ in any sense, and that denies his personal pre-existence) to the orthodox, Nicene Christology that eventually—after much blood had been spilled—carried the day.


Rubenstein is, by his own account, an "American Jew" (pp. xii-xiii) who offers the reader "my rather unorthodox (although, I hope, not disrespectful) interpretation of the Arian controversy" (p. xviii). A Rhodes Scholar and a professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs, he is obviously a very learned and intelligent man. The book is written at a popular level, and as a review at Publishers Weekly describes it, the genre of Rubenstein's book is best described as "historical drama." It is important to recognize the difference between popular historical drama and sober, academic historiography. Rubenstein is not trained as a historian (or a theologian), and he does not provide a meticulously argued, carefully qualified historical reconstruction of the Arian controversy but a vivid, readable "interpretation of the Arian controversy." He relies mainly on secondary sources, which are cited rather sparsely (endnotes occur at a rate of just over one per page). When he does refer to primary sources, he sometimes cites them indirectly from his secondary sources. There is virtually no interaction with primary sources in the original languages, text-critical issues, etc. Moreover, on more than one occasion, Rubenstein explicitly invokes the imagination to support his suggested version of events where no historical evidence exists:
Bishop Athanasius did not lead the mob that lynched George of Cappadocia, but if he condemned their acts, the record of that condemnation has been lost. We do know how he felt about the Arian bishop who had tried to replace him. One can easily imagine him concluding that, distasteful as popular violence may be, the Alexandrian crowd on that occasion had done the Lord's work. (pp. 13-14, emphasis added) 
Arius appeared at the bishop's palace on the day scheduled and stood like a gaunt shadow before Alexander. No record of this interview remains, but we can easily imagine the priest upholding his ideas with gentle but implacable determination. (p. 56, emphasis added)
Once one recognizes what Rubenstein's book is not, one is in a better position to appreciate it for what it is. He is a master storyteller with a flair for the dramatic, and the result is a real page-turner. I stayed up well past my bedtime to finish it in one sitting! And, of course, there is no reason to doubt the basic veracity of his account of the controversy (i.e., people, events, dates, places, etc.), bearing in mind that Rubenstein has taken a certain amount of poetic license and put his own spin on the story.


Rubenstein certainly makes no effort to whitewash the unsavoury, and in some cases gory, details of the Arian controversy. This makes for an uncomfortable reading experience, especially for anyone with an emotional investment in the religious community involved—the Church. Probably any Christian reader will relate to Rubenstein's own comment on the impact of the controversy upon the believers of that time:
for devout Christians, of course, the Church was more than an organization. It was Christ's own congregation, the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and to split it would be to desecrate the very body of the Savior himself. (p. 158)
It is painful to read of how theological disagreement led to Christians killing Christians, and of the Church's messy attempt to re-calibrate its relationship to the State after the rapid reversal of its political status, from suffering imperial wrath to enjoying imperial patronage; from outlaw sect to prestigious religion. From the perspective of 21st century Western Christianity it all seems very strange: in this age of religious freedom and tolerance it is difficult to imagine riots and running street battles erupting over a difference in Christology. However, a glance through online Christian discussion forums reminds one that the religious hostility that led to fourth-century fratricide is still very much alive. One suspects it is largely social and legal structures, not softer hearts, that prevents contemporary intra-Christian disputes from escalating into violence. Given the principle "Much given, much required" (Luke 12:48), rather than judging our fourth-century forebears, we should be thankful for the freedom and tolerance that prevails in our society, and redouble our efforts to conduct ourselves in a charitable, respectful and orderly manner in religious dialogue. Jesus reminds us that the line between invective and bloodshed may be thinner than we think (Matt. 5:21-22).

Another take-home message for me is that no ecclesiastical tradition is without a checkered history. In this case, both the Arians and their opponents used the power of the State to suppress one another and committed atrocities in the name of Christ. It is shameful, and we must learn from it, but we must also not exaggerate the ecclesiological implications. The story of Israel reminds us that the elect status of God's people is not revoked for moral failings (Rom. 11:29). Moreover, to impute the guilt of violence against Arians to contemporary Trinitarians—or even to all fourth-century Trinitarians—would be just as reprehensible as imputing the guilt of Jesus' crucifixion to contemporary Jews—or even to all first-century Jews.

I would summarize Rubenstein's overall narrative thus: the Arian controversy was a violent conflict in which corrupt clergymen and meddling statesmen succeeded in changing Christian doctrine. However, the most encouraging finding I take from the book is one that runs against the grain of this narrative, but which Rubenstein nonetheless acknowledges. This is, namely, that as the fourth century wore on, the Nicene party and the conservative Arian party ("a bloc representing a substantial majority of Eastern Christians", p. 197) increasingly found each other through dialogue. Rubenstein explains that the solidarity of Christians created by the brief reign of the pagan emperor Julian and the subsequent mild regime of the Arian emperor Valens "created a space in which Nicene Christians and conservative Arians could communicate thoughtfully with each other" (p. 204). The result was exemplified through the theological work of the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus), who "developed the ideas that would make it possible for conservative Arians and Nicene Christians eventually to fuse" (p. 205). "The Cappadocians had provided a new theology capable of uniting a large contingent of Arian Christians with most Nicenes" (p. 210), who together "represented a probable majority of all Christians" (p. 200). Thus, according to Rubenstein's account, the orthodoxy that emerged from the Arian controversy (made official at the Council of Constantinople in 381) was a consensus of the Church achieved through theological reflection and dialogue. The Church's resolution to the Arian controversy was enforced politically, to be sure, under Emperor Theodosius—and ruthlessly, one should add, in relation to dissenting Arians—after the Council of Constantinople. However, what Theodosius enforced was the theological consensus of the Church, not merely his own private judgment or the will of a few politically connected bishops. This, I believe, supports the historical and theological legitimacy of Trinitarian orthodoxy.


Rubenstein's expertise in conflict resolution shines through clearly in his writing. He approaches the Arian controversy from a purely anthropological perspective: it is fully explicable as a bloody power struggle involving competing personalities motivated by self-interest. Most of the "principal characters," statesmen and clergymen alike, are depicted as ruthless, manipulative schemers trying to outmaneuver their opponents. Rubenstein repeatedly invokes the metaphor of moves in a chess game to describe individual turns in the plot (pp. 16, 65, 166, 168). While this is a useful perspective on the controversy and is not without warrant, those like myself with Christian faith commitments are likely to consider it insufficient for two reasons. First, the community which suffered through this horrific controversy was the Church—the Body of Christ, founded by Christ, ruled by Christ—and so one must be open to theological interpretations of the conflict and not only anthropological ones. Second, a measure of respect for the tradition of the Church and her "Fathers" inclines one toward a more charitable view of the clergymen involved in the controversy. This does not mean overlooking evidence of their moral failings or denying that atrocities were committed on their watch. It does, however, mean maintaining a certain level of humility in judging their motives and character, and respecting the dignity of their office as leaders of the Church of that time.

There are a few perspectives in the book that I would quibble with. First, Rubenstein offers certain dichotomous contrasts between the priorities of the Church before and after the rise of Constantine that seem exaggerated. For instance, "While terror rained, most Christian leaders had maintained a common front. Survival, not doctrinal purity, had been the order of the day" (pp. 72-73). This suggests that during times of persecution, Christian leaders' concern for doctrinal purity loosened. However, the writings of the Church throughout its first three centuries show a consistent concern for doctrinal purity, regardless of historical circumstances. Another example:
Was the Christianity that emerged from the years of travail to be a religion for everyone, or only for those meeting certain standards of faith and virtue? Should the clergy's primary task be to help its members perfect themselves or to administer sacred rites and help maintain order, as the pagan priesthood had done? (p. 73)
Rubenstein offers no evidence that these were among the most pressing questions on the minds of Christian leaders in the time of Constantine. The Church had always insisted on "certain standards of faith and virtue," and it is not clear that the tasks of helping members perfect themselves, administering sacred rites and maintaining order are antithetical. Certainly some of the other questions raised by Rubenstein are more obviously relevant:
What should a Christian empire look like? ... How much doctrinal unity was necessary to a healthy and growing Church? To what extent should ecclesiastical power be regularized and centralized? What sort of relations should the bishops maintain with monks and holy men? With emperors and state officials? (p. 73)
Second, Rubenstein does a reasonable job of maintaining scholarly neutrality in his analysis of the controversy, but at certainly points his comments are clearly slanted toward the Arians. For instance, he avers that the Arians were Christians who "had a stronger sense of historical continuity than others"; for them, "Christianity seemed a natural extension of and improvement on Judaism" (pp. 73-74). By contrast,
the strongest anti-Arians experienced their present as a sharp break with the past. It was they who demanded, in effect, that Christianity be 'updated' by blurring or even obliterating the long-accepted distinction between the Father and the Son. (pp. 73-74)
This is a clear value judgment on the relative historical credibility of the Arians and their opponents, yet Rubenstein neither substantiates it nor refer us to any sources that do. It is unclear why he places the word 'updated' in inverted commas as though this were the language used by the anti-Arians. Obviously, opponents of Arianism did not think of themselves as 'updating' Christianity, nor as "blurring or even obliterating the long-accepted distinction between the Father and the Son," but as defending the traditional doctrines of the faith against Arius' novel, heretical teachings. Probably both sides in the controversy laid claim to the historical high ground. The Church had traditionally maintained that Christ was God without dogmatically defining his relationship to the Father in philosophically precise language, and the controversy erupted exactly in that dogmatic gap. For Rubenstein to make the unsubstantiated claim that the Arians were historically minded conservatives while the anti-Arians anti-traditionalist innovators is a blight on the credibility of his book.

Another feature that suggests pro-Arian bias is his characterization of Arius and Athanasius, two of the principal antagonists on the Arian and Nicene side respectively. Consider these comments on the two men respectively:
Arius must have been a persuasive man. Notwithstanding the scurrilous labels bestowed upon him by his enemies ('heretic' was among the mildest of them), his devotion to Christ and the Church was genuine, as was his desire to live at peace with other Christians, even if he and they differed in matters of doctrine. (p. 102)
The redheaded deacon [Athanasius] was one of the fourth century's 'new men': a person who came of age after the Great Persecution had ended; whose parents were very likely pagans, but whose education was Christian, not classical; whose ambition was boundless; and who was very much at home in the 'real' world of power relations and political skulduggery. For a similar combination of theoretical acumen, dogged adherence to principle, and political ruthlessness, one would have to await the advent of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Vladimir Lenin. (pp. 104-105)
Thus, Rubenstein defends Arius against his opponents' accusations, describing him as a sincere, devoted follower of Christ and the Church who desired peace. Meanwhile, Athanasius is depicted as power-hungry, ruthless, underhanded (as the word 'skulduggery' implies), and driven by boundless ambition—a picture Rubenstein rounds off with a comparison to an infamous communist revolutionary, dictator and atheist, Vladimir Lenin. 

I'm not familiar enough with academic literature on either Arius or Athanasius to critique Rubenstein concerning these two men, but it doesn't seem impartial (especially given that Rubenstein's theological sympathies lie with the Arians). Moreover, there are aspects of Rubenstein's own narrative that are in tension with these characterizations: is Arius' "defiance" (read: insubordination; see pp. 49, 60) toward his own bishop the behaviour of a man devoted to the Church and desirous of peace? This can at least be questioned. Conversely, Rubenstein narrates the soft-speaking, conciliatory approach of "friendly persuasion" that Athanasius took toward the conservative Arian party later in life (p. 197). He construes this in terms of Athanasius' "sharp-eyed perception" of the changing shape of Arianism—in other words, shrewdness rather than an Arius-like longing for peace or a checking of his "boundless ambition." This hardly seems charitable. Contrast the articles on Arius and Athanasius in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, both of which are sympathetic from a moral point of view (notwithstanding the pro-Trinitarian bias). The Encyclopedia says of Arius, for instance, that "his moral character was never impeached except doubtfully of ambition by Theodoret."

Finally, I would take issue with Rubenstein's characterization of the Arian controversy as a whole. The very title of the book is problematic. Christians were calling Jesus "God" long before Arius came along—already in the New Testament, in fact (e.g., John 20:28; Heb. 1:8)! Even Bart Ehrman, no friend to orthodox theology and himself the author of a similarly-titled book How Jesus became God, locates the crucial development within the New Testament. For example, according to Ehrman, the Christology of John's Gospel holds that "even before he appeared, he was the Logos of God himself, a being who was God, the one through whom the entire universe was created."1 The story did not end there, of course, as the subsequent centuries saw many different Christological views develop "as theologians tried to work out the precise implications of these rather imprecise early claims made about Christ."2 Thus the Arian controversy is best described as an advanced stage of the Church's deliberation about what "Jesus is God" meant; it was not a debate over whether Jesus is God at all. Hence, the title's suggestion that Jesus became God in the mid-fourth century is "misleading," as leading patristic scholar Paul Hartog agrees (he criticizes it in the same footnote as the Da Vinci Code and for the same reason!) Of course, a carefully nuanced title might have a negative effect on sales, which is probably why Rubenstein or his publisher decided to go with the provocative approach.

Rubenstein characterizes the development of Trinitarian orthodoxy as "Doctrinally...the point at which Christianity breaks decisively with its parent faith" (p. 210). He obviously means Judaism; but most scholars today, including Jewish scholars, recognize that rabbinic Judaism (that which existed in the fourth century) was not the parent faith of Christianity but the brother (or sister?) faith of Christianity. In other words, rabbinic Judaism (which developed from Pharisaic Judaism, and from which developed modern orthodox Judaism) and Christianity were the two surviving "children" of Second Temple Judaism with all of its diversity. These two children offered competing answers to questions such as the significance of Jesus of Nazareth, the locus and practice of religion without the Jerusalem Temple, and the means by which Gentiles might become joined to the people of God. And Christians, of course, see Trinitarianism not as a break with their Second Temple Jewish roots but as the legitimate growth and flowering of those roots, developed particularly in light of their experience of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.


We have already noted Hartog's criticism of the book's misleading title. I also read two published, scholarly reviews of Rubenstein's book, one by Tim Vivian in Anglican Theological Review3 and the other by William B. Palardy in Catholic Historical Review.4 Both writers are experts: Vivian is a Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies, a "dedicated scholar in the field of early Christianity, with an emphasis in Coptic Studies and early Christian Monasticism"; Palardy is a Professor of Patristic and Systematic Theology and now Rector of a seminary. Both men are priests, so their bias is obviously Trinitarian. (Unfortunately I didn't find any reviews by secular historians.)

Vivian states that Rubenstein "has succeeded in writing a lively, engaging narrative that is reasonably accurate in its details," and calls him as "a good storyteller."5 However, he laments two recent major historical works that are absent from Rubenstein's bibliography and reminds us that
good storytelling is not enough to make good history. Rubenstein's footnoting of sources is, for a popular work, generally good, but when it is spotty it raises serious concerns.6
He observes that Rubenstein's appeals to imagination are more conducive to a novel than a work of history, and states, "If...one wants to argue historically that Jesus 'became' God, then one has to look at the writings of the first century, not the fourth."7 He adds that "The decisive break between Judaism and Christianity that Rubenstein places in the fourth century actually took place three centuries earlier"8 (on this point I might suggest two centuries earlier, if one defines the decisive break sociologically rather than theologically). He continues:
Rubenstein's laudable desire to bridge the differences between Judaism and Christianity leads, however inadvertently, to tendentious history, which then produces misleading theology, in this case an idealized view of Arianism over against Nicene Christianity.9
Vivian then concludes on a conciliatory note, acknowledging his admiration for the author's "forthrightness" and "his respect for both his subject and his audience", while expressing worry that the book "may unintentionally mislead a lot of readers...because of bad history beguilingly offered."10

For his part, Palardy describes Rubenstein's style as "dramatic, provocative, and eminently readable."11 He commends Rubenstein's "skills at analyzing social and religious conflict" and his being "generally well read in the pertinent recent literature in English" despite not being a theologian nor an historian. He further praises Rubenstein's "vivid portrayals of the major personalities involved" and "the generally successful attempt at making the very technical theological terms in this debate accessible for non-specialists." He also agrees with Rubenstein that the doctrine of the Trinity enshrined in the Creed of Constantinople (381) "was radically distinctive when compared with Greco-Roman Neoplatonism and Judaism."12

Palardy also criticizes Rubenstein on a number of historical inaccuracies as well as oversimplifications about the nature of patristic Christianity. He summarizes:
In sum, Rubenstein’s work may perhaps be acceptable for the non-specialist and in undergraduate courses dealing with this period of history, so long as it is read with caution. It is certainly not recommended otherwise. There are too many errors and unsubstantiated generalizations with too few references to primary sources.13
Given this somewhat muted critical reception (none of the major journals of patristics, late antiquity or theology reviewed it, as far as I can tell), let us consider the response to Rubenstein's book among contemporary unitarians.


Generally speaking, it appears that contemporary unitarians have lapped up Rubenstein's book, praising him as an "unbiased" "historian," although Rubenstein himself does not claim to be either (recall his description of his book as a "rather unorthodox...interpretation of the Arian controversy").

A self-published refutation of the Trinity by one Nathaniel Max Rock states that Rubenstein "presents an unbiased historical perspective on the development of the Trinity Doctrine" and describes him as "first an [sic] foremost a historian."14 A reviewer at biblicalunitarian.com, Matthew Johnson, writes, "Rubenstein not only does an excellent job in retelling history, but he does it from a very unbiased viewpoint." Barbara Buzzard, wife of leading unitarian scholar Sir Anthony Buzzard, praises Rubenstein's "rather unbiased perspective" on a "very volatile subject." (Her review, which is full of anti-Trinitarian polemic, is basically an apologetic for Rubenstein's thesis).15 She says Rubenstein "has managed to unearth the nuts and bolts of this conference and describe the goings on as if they were a suspense novel." But what exactly has Rubenstein "unearthed"? Anything that was not taken from his secondary sources was supplied by his own imagination—including much of the vivid detail that gives Rubenstein's narrative a "suspense novel" feel!

Philosopher (and unitarian) Prof. Dale Tuggy writes of the Arian conflict, "This controversy was complex, and has been much illuminated by recent historians," citing Rubenstein's work amongst others.16 This is a surprising statement from an academic, since Rubenstein is not a historian, and does not "illuminate" the history of the controversy in any academic sense.

The unitarian apologetic tome One God & One Lord relies on Rubenstein's book as a historical source, and at one point prefaces a quotation from the book thus: "Rubenstein points out the illogic of the assertion that 'God can do anything.'"17 However, the quoted portion is not Rubenstein's point but a reconstruction of what Arius said when testifying against Athanasius before Constantine (admittedly, a reconstruction seemingly drawn from Rubenstein's imagination, and thus perhaps indirectly reflecting his own ideas).

Another unitarian website places Rubenstein's book on a "Recommended Reading List," nestled among scholarly works like Dunn's Christology in the Making and N.T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God.

In summary, it appears that, by and large, biblical unitarians—even those of an academic bent—have accepted Rubenstein's book uncritically, overlooking its historiographical shortcomings and mistaking like-mindedness for unbiasedness in order to harness certain of its emphases for apologetic ends. None of the reviews or citations above, as far as I can tell, are the least bit critical of Rubenstein's book, nor do they show any awareness that it is not a scholarly historical work. For the most part, Rubenstein's vivid portrayal of the violence and political intrigue in the Arian controversy is simply steered into an attack on the theological legitimacy of Trinitarian orthodoxy.


The Arian controversy was an unpleasant chapter in Church history, and we are in Rubenstein's debt for retelling the story so vividly since, as it has been said, those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it. However, it needs to be stressed first that the book is a popular work; Rubenstein is not a historian and the genre of his book is better described as a historical drama than a history. For a more sober, less imaginative reconstruction of the events and personalities one should consult a scholarly historiographical work that interacts critically with the primary sources in their original languages. Secondly, Rubenstein's bias is by his own admission "unorthodox"; he writes from the viewpoint of a secular American Jew. (There is nothing wrong with this, of course, and it is very interesting to hear this perspective on the controversy.) His narrative seems reasonably fair in its respective characterization of the Arians and Nicenes, but at certain points slants in an unduly pro-Arian direction, and one detects a bit too much enthusiasm in his vilification of revered Church figures like Athanasius (whom he compares to Vladimir Lenin).

A probably unintended consequence of Rubenstein's work is that it has attained the status of a cult classic18 among biblical unitarians, who view it as adding credibility to their interpretation of the Arian controversy as a politically motivated hijacking of Christian theology. I would recommend that unitarian readers be more critical in their reception of the book and base historical-theological arguments concerning the Arian controversy on scholarly histories rather than popular historical dramas. Moreover, as mentioned above, Rubenstein's book—and it may in this respect qualify as a "hostile witness"—attests that the Trinitarian dogma that emerged from the Arian controversy as orthodoxy was a theological consensus achieved through theological reflection and dialogue between the Nicene and conservative Arian parties (who together represented a majority in the Church). By contrast, a theological view corresponding to biblical unitarianism, if it existed at all in the fourth century Church, was restricted to the most radical fringe of the Arian party. And, without justifying the political action involved in either case, it must be conceded that whereas all State attempts to extinguish Christianity during the period of pagan rule failed, the State under Christian rule succeeded in extinguishing Arianism:
Arianism in its original form disappeared rapidly as a living force within the Roman Empire, and by the seventh century the last of the Arian tribes in Western Europe had been converted to Catholicism. (p. 227)
As I have argued previously, this extinction shows that, by the "Gamaliel criterion" endorsed in the Book of Acts, Arianism was not of God. Meanwhile, the Trinitarian orthodoxy achieved in the late fourth century has stood for over 1600 years, and despite schisms over other issues, remains the creed and foundation for ecumenical dialogue among Roman Catholics, the various Orthodox Churches and the various Protestant denominations. Weighed against the acrimony, violence and shifting balance of power during the Arian controversy, the durability of this ancient consensus is truly remarkable—perhaps even miraculous!

Footnotes

  • 1 Ehrman, Bart D. (2014). How Jesus became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperOne, p. 146.
  • 2 Ehrman, op. cit., p. 149.
  • 3 Vivian, Tim (2001). When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome [Review Article]. Anglical Theological Review, 83(3), 649-51.
  • 4 Palardy, William B. (2000). When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ's Divinity in the Last Days of Rome [Review Article]. Catholic Historical Review, 86(3), 483-85.
  • 5 Vivian, op. cit., p. 649.
  • 6 Vivian, op. cit., p. 650.
  • 7 Vivian, op. cit., p. 650.
  • 8 Vivian, op. cit., p. 651.
  • 9 Vivian, op. cit., p. 651.
  • 10 Vivian, op. cit., p. 651.
  • 11 Palardy, op. cit., p. 483.
  • 12 Palardy, op. cit., p. 483.
  • 13 Palardy, op. cit., p. 484.
  • 14 Rock, Nathaniel Max (2006). Christ is not God: A Powerful Deception. Published by author, p. 89.
  • 15 The review itself is "an attempt to show" (from Rubenstein's book) how Jesus "became God officially at Nicea". Having enthusiastically thanked Rubenstein for his "exposure of the roots of Trinitarian dogma," she ridicules the Church Father Gregory of Nyssa for describing the Trinity as a paradox ("Say what?!"), which she thinks is equivalent to a square circle. She asks, "How is it that 1700 years later we are still cowering under their very faulty leadership and the unscriptural “rules” they made up as the trinity was “invented”?"
  • 16 Tuggy, Dale (2013). "Trinity". In Edward N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2013/entries/trinity. Accessed at Google Books in a self-published book version, p. 85.
  • 17 Graeser, Mark H., Lynn, John A. & Schoenheit, John W. (2003). One God & One Lord: Reconsidering the Cornerstone of the Christian Faith (3rd edn). Indianapolis: Christian Educational Services, p. 368.
  • 18 I use this term in its usual sense, meaning a work that is popular among a particular demographic, without any of the pejorative connotation which the word 'cult' has when applied to sectarian religious groups. See here for my disavowal of the use of the term 'cult' for Christadelphians.

Monday 17 October 2016

Our Nicene common ancestor: an ecclesiological-historical argument for Trinitarian orthodoxy

1. The historical pedigree criterion
2. The Gamaliel criterion
3. Applying the criteria
4. Our Nicene common ancestor
5. Conclusion
Addendum: Possible objections considered

In this article I offer a theological argument for Trinitarian orthodoxy. The argument is indirect in that it does not look at the doctrine of the Trinity directly (or at related issues such as the deity of Christ and the personality of the Holy Spirit). Rather, the argument is based entirely on the doctrine of the church (ecclesiology) and the history of the church. The default alternative position will be that of Christadelphians, although it would apply equally to other non-Trinitarian restorationist movements such as Jehovah's Witnesses or the Church of God General Conference.


Many people who are active on social media have probably seen the satirical meme below at some point. I don't know who created the meme, but I'm guessing it was intended to discredit the claims of fundamentalist and/or restorationist movement(s) to have the definitive truth over against the myriads of other present and past ecclesiastical traditions.
One of the assumptions implicit in this meme is that the historical pedigree of a Christian movement affects the credibility of its theological claims. It is the recent appearance of 'our movement' that makes its claim to have definitively 'gotten the Bible right' sound ridiculous.1 If 'our movement' had not 'come along' lately but could trace its history back to antiquity through an unbroken chain of tradition, the credibility of its truth claims would increase.

We can call the criterion presupposed by the meme the historical pedigree criterion. It is clearly a retrospective criterion, used to evaluate the theological legitimacy of contemporary Christian movements in view of their past. A weak statement of this criterion would be simply that a movement should have a long and impressive historical pedigree in order to claim theological legitimacy for itself. A stronger statement of this criterion would be that a movement should be able to plausibly claim direct, unbroken historical descent from the apostolic church. Obviously the theological shape of the church in the apostolic and early post-apostolic period is disputed (due to differing interpretations of the New Testament and other early Christian literature), and the available historical data increases as we move forward in time. Nevertheless, if we want the truth claims of 'our movement' to be taken seriously, we should be able to offer a credible historical argument for its continuous existence since antiquity.


In contrast to the retrospective historical pedigree criterion, the theological legitimacy of a religious movement might also be assessed prospectively. A criterion for doing so is found within the New Testament in the speech of Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder to the Sanhedrin. In response to a speech from Peter and the apostles, the members of the Sanhedrin 'were enraged and wanted to kill them'. Gamaliel, Luke tells us, placated their wrath as follows:
34 But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while. 35 And he said to them, "Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. 36 For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!" So they took his advice... (Acts 5:34-39 ESV)
Gamaliel's argument is built upon two simple and opposite premises. (1) A movement that is not of God will inevitably 'fail' and 'come to nothing'; whereas (2) a movement that is of God is impossible to overthrow; it is indestructible and will endure. Hence, the future of the Jesus movement is theologically predetermined, and neither the action nor the inaction of the Sanhedrin can alter it.

What does Luke think of Gamaliel's argument? Within the broader narrative context of Acts it is obvious that he endorses it, because the reader learns that in contrast to the movements of Theudas and Judas the Galilean, the Jesus movement did not come to nothing, but prospered and fulfilled its founder's prediction that it would extend 'to the end of the earth' (Acts 1:8). This prediction is symbolically fulfilled in Acts 26-28 by Paul's arrival in Rome for an impending audience with the emperor himself. The implicit argument of Acts is that the continued existence and spread of the Jesus movement - amid persecution, no less - proves in terms of Gamaliel's argument that it cannot be overthrown because it is 'of God'.

Gamaliel's argument is consistent with other New Testament texts that presuppose what might be termed 'the perseverance of the church'. Jesus famously declared to Simon Peter that 'the gates of Hades shall not prevail against [my church]' (Matt. 16:18), a promise which seems to require at very least her perpetual existence. Similarly, in Jesus' final words to his disciples in Matthew, he promises to be with them to 'the end of the age' (Matt. 28:20), a phrase which in Matthaean context can only mean 'until the Parousia' (Matt. 13:40-43, 49-50; 24:3). It is difficult to imagine the church lapsing into non-existence as long as her Lord is 'with her'. The metaphor of the church as Christ's body also assumes the church's perpetual existence since Christ's body is nourished by him (Eph. 5:29-30), and the same could be said of the metaphor of the church as Christ's bride (Rev. 21:9; 22:17). We are only scratching the surface of biblical ecclesiology here, but it is enough to make our point.

Gamaliel's argument gives us a clear prospective criterion for evaluating the theological legitimacy of religious movements, including 'our movement'. If 'our movement' is not of God, it will eventually come to nothing. If, on the other hand, 'our movement' is of God, it will endure - regardless of any human attempts to suppress or destroy it.


Let us discuss the application of Gamaliel's criterion first, since this is more easily done. Gamaliel's criterion is not useful for evaluating present-day Christian movements, because we must wait and see whether each one will 'come to nothing', which may take centuries. However, Gamaliel's criterion is useful for evaluating past Christian movements, because we can conclude that any movement that 'came to nothing' was not of God. This allows us to rule out the theological legitimacy of many historical Christian movements. These would include the Ebionites, Marcionites, various Gnostic sects, Montanists, Arians, Sabellians, Donatists, Cathars (Albigensians), Paulinicians, and many others. The 'gates of Hades' finally prevailed against all of these movements, so evidently none of them was the object of Christ's ecclesiological promises.

The historical pedigree criterion can be applied to present-day Christian movements, but its application is not as straightforward. This is because most present-day Christian movements formed through schism from or within a parent movement at some point in the past. However, in many such schisms, both (or all, if more than two) the 'child' movements claim to be the legitimate heir of the parent. An obvious example would be the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches after the Great Schism of 1054. Neither party regarded (or regards) itself as having broken away and formed a new movement; each believed it had excommunicated the leading bishop of the other and then continued as the true and legitimate Church. Hence, post-1054 both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches could make a plausible historical claim that the pre-1054 Catholic/Orthodox Church was part of their historical pedigree.

In determining whether a nominally new 'child' movement can be plausibly be called the legitimate heir of an older 'parent' movement, the following should apply:
(H1) There should be a direct historical link between the two movements, i.e. among the early members of the 'child movement' were individuals who had previously belonged to the 'parent movement'.
(H2) The 'child' movement, from its nominal beginning, should have identified the parent movement as its theologically legitimate historical antecedent and identified itself as the legitimate continuation of the parent movement.
(H3) The doctrinal beliefs of the 'child movement' should align with those of the 'parent movement'.

Now, the vast majority of present-day Christian movements are going to come up against a historical barrier as they follow their pedigree back in time, and that barrier is the Reformation. Nearly all Protestant movements existing today either broke away directly from the Roman Catholic Church (e.g. Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians), or broke away from a movement that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church (e.g. Methodists), or broke away from a movement that broke away from a movement that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, and so on. Other movements congealed through the coming together of like-minded people from various Protestant backgrounds. Hence, as we move backward in time, the historical pedigree of nearly every Protestant movement is absorbed into the Roman Catholic Church once we reach about 1500. All such movements must claim either (a) that the Roman Catholic Church, at least prior to the Reformation, was (or contained) the true body of Christ; or (b) there was an extended period of time prior to the Reformation during which the true body of Christ did not exist, i.e. came to nothing. If (a), then it must be conceded that people who were nominally Roman Catholic constituted the true body of Christ, at least for a time. If (b), then no movement meets the historical pedigree criterion, and Christianity itself is falsified by the Gamaliel criterion and the failure of the Lord's promises.

The exception to this 'historical barrier' among present-day Protestants are those who might legitimately claim (in terms of H1, H2 and H3 above) that their historical pedigree runs through the Vaudois (a.k.a. Waldenses), who existed before the Protestant Reformation and whose leaders embraced the Reformation in the 16th century. However, those who claim ecclesiological descent from the Vaudois can only push their historical barrier about three centuries further back, to the late 12th century. Their founder, Peter Waldo, was a Roman Catholic who began teaching ideas contrary to Church doctrine and was excommunicated. (For Christadelphian readers who are familiar with Alan Eyre's books, it may be of interest to hear that the Vaudois were Trinitarian.)

The Roman Catholic Church, of course, traces its historical pedigree back through the Great Schism of 1054 (seeing itself as the legitimate heir of pre-1054 catholic orthodoxy2) and thence through catholic orthodoxy of the medieval and patristic periods. The Eastern Orthodox Church does the same. The Oriental Orthodox Church traces its historical pedigree back to 451 when it became separated from the wider catholic-orthodox church over the Chalcedonian Definition. The Oriental Orthodox Church lodges a claim alongside that of the Roman Catholic-Eastern Orthodox Church to be the rightful heir of the pre-451 catholic-orthodox church. Similarly, the Church of the East traces its historical pedigree back to 431 when it became separated from the wider catholic-orthodox church over Nestorianism. The Church of the East thus lodges a claim alongside that of the Roman Catholic-Eastern Orthodox-Oriental Orthodox Church to be the rightful heir of the pre-431 catholic-orthodox church.

What are the implications of this ecclesiastical family tree that we have just verbally sketched?


Every Christian movement that exists today is descended from the catholic-orthodox church as it was in 430 A.D. (on the eve of the Nestorian schism of 431). And this was, of course, the church that had reached consensus on the doctrine of the Trinity at the ecumenical councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381). There were various other Christian movements that existed in 430 A.D. (Arians, Montanists, Marcionites, Paulianists, Apollinarians, Gnostics, etc.) but these all eventually 'came to nothing'. Of the 'Christianities' that existed in 430 A.D., only Niceno-Constantinopolitan Trinitarian Christianity has continuously existed until the present day.

This means no Christian movement existing today can trace its historical pedigree back to the apostles without being absorbed into Trinitarian catholic orthodoxy at some point. All roads back to the apostles pass through Constantinople and Nicea. The early-fifth-century catholic church is the 'common ancestor' of all present-day Christian movements. And it must be emphasized that the early-fifth-century catholic church was not merely one in which the doctrine of the Trinity was popular or was the majority opinion. The doctrine of the Trinity had been dogmatically promulgated in the fourth century ecumenical councils, and non-Trinitarians had been anathemized. Everyone in communion with the catholic-orthodox church in the early fifth century was either a Trinitarian or a charlatan.

Indeed, for non-Trinitarian movements of today, their non-Trinitarian historical pedigree at best goes back about five centuries to the dawn of the Protestant Reformation (that is, if historical continuity in terms of criteria H1, H2 and H3 above exists between contemporary non-Trinitarians and 16th-century non-Trinitarians, which is debatable).3 Before that, their historical pedigree is Roman Catholic - a tradition that had indisputably been Trinitarian for more than a thousand years. The non-Trinitarian Christian movements that exist today are a Reformation or post-Reformation phenomenon. Despite ideological affinities, they have no direct historical links to the non-Trinitarian movements of antiquity, which all 'came to nothing' long before the Reformation, showing themselves by Gamaliel's criterion to be 'not of God'.

The last question we can briefly address is whether the catholic orthodox church as it was in 430 A.D. could plausibly claim theological legitimacy in terms of our two historical criteria. Unquestionably this church meets Gamaliel's criterion: the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed has been used in all of the Catholic/Orthodox ecclesiastical traditions from the fifth century down to the present day (and later in many Protestant movements). The Nicene catholic orthodox church has never 'failed' nor 'come to nothing' - that much is certain.

What about the historical pedigree criterion? Did the catholic orthodox church of 430 A.D. have a plausible claim to direct, unbroken historical descent from the apostolic church? It is undeniable that the patristic church made this claim, and was concerned with this question, as shown by its episcopal succession lists for the patriarchates (Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem) and its great interest in the idea of apostolic succession. Moreover, this church stood in the tradition that had collected and transmitted the apostolic writings and this church had canonized them (defining the boundaries of the New Testament as we know it) in regional synods in the late fourth century. This church claimed as its own many theologians who wrote in the roughly two centuries between the apostolic age and the Council of Nicea (such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, etc.) And whatever one thinks of the theological developments that occurred between the apostolic period and the fourth century, there is no evidence of historical discontinuity between the apostolic church and the Nicene church. The catholic-orthodox bishops down into the fifth century did not repudiate their ecclesiastical forebears, but held them to be worthy of great honour.

Thus, while some details of the claim are open to debate (such as the historical veracity of episcopal succession lists), it is clear that the church of 430 A.D. did claim a historical pedigree going back to the apostles, and that this claim has at least prima facie plausibility.


Non-Trinitarian movements have no plausible claim to direct, unbroken historical descent from the apostolic church. They can only claim to be the restoration of an authentic, apostolic Christian community which had ceased to exist for many centuries. This cessation of existence, this 'coming to nothing', however, violates Gamaliel's dictum and the promises of Christ to his bride. Hence, non-Trinitarian Christian movements have no historically plausible claim to being the indestructible apostolic church. If any Christian movement can make such a claim, it must be one that has remained faithful to the Nicene Trinitarian heritage that all contemporary Christian movements share. It is truly only this heritage that allows us to confess, in the words of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, 'one holy, catholic and apostolic Church'.


The following are objections that might be raised against the argument of this article. I believe that such objections (especially the first three) are an implicit acknowledgment that the premises of the argument (the historical pedigree criterion and the Gamaliel criterion) are valid. The objections are made precisely because members of present-day heterodox Christian movements recognize the theological problem posed by their lack of historical pedigree. And the objections are not inferences drawn from historical evidence but are theologically motivated judgments imposed on history without evidence.

I. 'Our movement' has always existed since the apostles' time, but historical evidence is lacking because it was destroyed in times of censorship and persecution.

There is no doubt that, from the fourth century until the dawn of modernity, ecclesiastical and secular authorities cooperated to suppress 'heresies' using coercion and force - often brutal and lethal force. They did not adopt Rabbi Gamaliel's laissez faire approach. From the perspective of modernity with our liberal values, we can and should lament the morality of the catholic-orthodox Church's past atrocities committed against heretics (as well as Jews and Muslims). Value judgments aside, however, the cold historical reality is that the Catholic Church was largely successful in destroying 'heretical' movements up until the Reformation. This proves that none of the earlier 'heretical' movements constituted the true apostolic church; otherwise no human authority, as Gamaliel argued, would have been able to overthrow them.

Is it possible, however, that the true, non-Trinitarian church has continuously existed since the apostles' time, but that its existence is not well-documented due to persecution and suppression? Could it be that the movement went undetected for extended periods, and that at least a tiny remnant survived every attempt to destroy it? If so, we could not reasonably expect the writings of such a movement to have survived, could we?

There are a number of problems with this romantic, idealized reconstruction of sectarian history. First, no writings survive for most 'heretical movements' in Church history. We have no writings of Marcion, Paul of Samosata, Arius, Peter Waldo, and many other 'heresiarchs'. However, we still know something about them and their beliefs due to the polemic of their catholic opponents. Obviously, the sources are heavily biased and historians must read them critically. Yet there is ample historical evidence that these movements existed and eventually came to nought.

In general, the Catholic Church sought to destroy the heretics themselves and their writings. However, they generally did not try to erase all memory of their existence. Rather, they catalogued and documented past heresies so that they would be better prepared to face future ones. This phenomenon is present already in the second century in the Syntagma, a lost work of Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus' extant five-volume work Against Heresies. Heresiological literature became a whole genre in the patristic and medieval church. Heresies were also named, described and anathemized in the canons of church synods and ecumenical councils.

In the High Middle Ages, with the onset of the Inquisition in the West, the Roman Catholic Church's documentation of heresy became even more meticulous. As Deane explains:
One of the most important elements of the development of medieval inquisitorial activity was its use of texts-its painstaking recording and copying of interrogations, their organization and cross-referencing for easy use, and the collection of supporting written materials on issues of law and theology. Each tribunal had archives of registers into which confessions and information were copied, and these provide some of our best sources for the history of inquisition.4
It is safe to assume that a reasonably complete historical record of 'heretical' Christian movements through the ages has been preserved. It is very unsafe to assume that 'our movement' existed from apostolic times down to the present despite centuries-long gaps in the historical record.

II. The true body of Christ has always existed, not as one identifiable ecclesiastical movement but as a chain of non-conformist movements that went by many different names.

A version of this sort of hypothesis, within the Christadelphian movement, is offered by Alan Eyre in his books The Protesters and Brethren in Christ. Eyre discusses many different nonconformist groups and individuals through church history which he identifies as Christ's true brethren. The problem is that some of these groups have no historical link to one another, and many of them had conflicting doctrinal beliefs, both with each other and with Christadelphians.5 Moreover, Eyre is almost silent about the late patristic and medieval periods, taking the great majority of his examples from the Reformation period (and making passing references to a few early patristic writers).

More broadly, there is no unifying historical or theological thread running through the various non-conformist or 'heretical' Christian movements that have existed through church history.

III. The true body of Christ has always existed, not necessarily as a separate, identifiable ecclesiastical 'movement' but as individual dissidents who held to the true apostolic teachings.

A third objection might be that the true body of Christ was preserved, not in any identifiable ecclesiastical movement(s) but in the hearts and minds of dissident individuals who remained nominally part of the wider church. Surely historians cannot peer into the hearts and minds of long-dead individuals who may have been afraid to openly voice their objections to official Church dogma?

In response, it would be useful to consider the minimum requirements to constitute 'the body of Christ'. Jesus famously said, 'Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them' (Matt. 18:20). Hence, no number of isolated individuals can be the true church, the household of faith, the body of Christ. This requires, at an absolute minimum, two or three people who gather in Jesus' name, i.e. hold meetings and share fellowship in the breaking of bread.

The question is, assuming that such a 'movement of two or three' did exist, would it have been able to maintain its identity across generations, and would it have been able to do so while remaining undetected or at least undocumented by the wider Church? The answer is, almost certainly not. Maintaining theological identity over time without distortion requires a body of extra-biblical teaching in written form. A Christian movement, even a tiny one, that holds religious gatherings with a separate communion and produces non-conformist theological literature is not going to remain unknown within the wider Church for long. If they were nominal Catholics, they would not in good conscience have partaken of the sacraments (e.g. baptizing their children or taking the Eucharist), and this would have drawn the attention of the authorities. Nor are the members of such a movement likely to have wanted to remain unknown. Dissemination of ideas and proselytization are core values shared by nearly all Christian movements. A person who thinks he has the true gospel and everyone around him has a false one is not going to keep his thoughts to himself. 'A city set on a hill cannot be hidden' (see Matt. 5:13-16).

Thus, it is impossible for isolated individuals to have constituted the body of Christ through history. There must at every point in time have been at least two people in fellowship for 'the household of faith' to exist. The conditions required for the perseverance of such a tiny community of believers across generations would also have necessarily led to the growth of the community and its discovery and suppression by the wider Church. And so we are back to the situation of Objection I above. It is utterly implausible that such a community could have survived across many centuries without becoming part of recorded history. To posit the existence of such a tiny, secret 'dissident community' through the centuries in the absence of any evidence is the stuff of a Dan Brown novel.

IV. None of this is of theological importance. It is strictly the teachings of the Bible, not church history or tradition, that determine the theological legitimacy of a Christian movement.

The second sentence in this objection is naive because, even if we hold rigidly to a Sola Scriptura epistemology, our approach to interpreting the Bible will be heavily influenced by our view of church history and tradition. Were the Church Fathers wicked apostates? Or were they, as the classical label suggests, 'fathers' to whom we look for wisdom and guidance?

Moreover, we must realize that individual doctrines of the faith are interconnected and interdependent. Our evaluation of the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be divorced from our doctrine of the Church - our ecclesiology. This article has essentially offered an ecclesiological defense of the doctrine of the Trinity. The ecclesiological principles that undergird the historical argument are drawn straight from the Bible. We have Rabbi Gamaliel's teaching (implicitly endorsed by Luke) that a religious movement that is 'of God' cannot be overthrown while a religious movement that is 'not of God' inevitably comes to nothing. This coheres with Christ's promises to be present with his disciples until the end of the age, to nourish his body the church, and that the gates of Hades would not prevail against the church.

The argument of this article is therefore biblically based, even if its connection to the doctrine of the Trinity is only indirect. Anyone who seeks to justify their non-Trinitarian stance must contend not only with biblical teaching about God, Christ and the Holy Spirit, but also with biblical teaching about the Church as compared with how history actually unfolded. The question is, can 'our movement' plausibly claim to be the body of Christ, in which he has always been present, which he has continually nourished, which has never been overthrown despite the best efforts of human authorities? That all present-day Christian movements (including non-Trinitarian movements) share a common ancestor in the Nicene Trinitarian church suggests that no non-Trinitarian movement can make such a claim.6

If no non-Trinitarian movement can meet the two criteria that the true body of Christ should have, this casts a dark cloud of suspicion over the legitimacy of non-Trinitarian theology and provides a strong motivation to reopen the question of its biblical basis. Hence, this fourth objection does not address the problem but simply ignores it.

V. The New Testament forewarns about false teachers who would lead the church astray, a problem that had already begun in the apostles' time.

This claim does not directly impact the argument because it has no bearing on the validity of the historical pedigree criterion or the Gamaliel criterion. Indeed, if Nicene Christianity was the fruit of a 'great apostasy' (as some unitarian restorationists would claim), then the only form of Christianity that meets these two criteria is an apostate form, which effectively falsifies Christianity in toto.

New Testament passages that warn about false prophets or false teachers (and there are many) must be balanced against the many passages that promise active divine support for the church through the headship of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the warning passages themselves witness to the robust reaction against false teaching that took place in the early church. Hence, the ecclesiological picture that emerges from the New Testament is not one of gloom and pessimism but of a church that faces daunting challenges within and without but is sustained by her gracious Lord.

Indeed, the writings of second-century, proto-orthodox Church Fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons show a continuation of the apostolic tradition of standing strong against false teachings. Orthodoxy can point to many heresies that arose (fulfilling New Testament predictions) and which were successfully opposed. Thus, the New Testament warnings about false teachers pose no problem for orthodoxy unless we presuppose that 'orthodoxy' is the false teaching about which the New Testament forewarned (which is, of course, circular reasoning).7

Footnotes

  • 1 The other aspect would be the sheer number of such recent movements of which 'our movement' is just one. In view of the numbers, the antecedent probability of 'our movement' having gotten the Bible uniquely right is very low. However, this problem is mitigated if 'our movement' is an ancient movement among a myriad of latecomers to the ecclesiastical scene. In that case, there is a logical basis for distinguishing 'our movement' from its contemporary competitors.
  • 2 Throughout this post, 'catholic' with a lower-case 'c' is used in the sense of 'universal' and 'orthodox' with a lower-case 'o' is used in the sense of 'mainstream, established'. These terms are to be distinguished from the upper-case Catholic and Orthodox which refer respectively to specific ecclesiastical movements/institutions (although the Catholic and Orthodox Churches clearly apply these terms to themselves because they consider themselves to be catholic and orthodox).
  • 3 At a stretch one might claim that some anti-Trinitarian stirrings occurred in the 1400s, e.g. in the writings of Lorenzo Valla, but there does not seem to be evidence from the 15th century of anything that could be called a non-Trinitarian Christian community.
  • 4 Deane, Jennifer Kolpacoff (2011). A History of Medieval Heresy and Inquisition. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, p. 106.
  • 5 Numerous claims in Eyre's books were criticized by another Christadelphian writer, Ruth McHaffie, in a book called Finding Founders and Facing Facts, which I haven't read and which is unfortunately out of print. Christadelphian apologist Jonathan Burke describes the book as 'exhaustively researched' and states that it demonstrates 'misreading or misrepresentation of a number of [Eyre's] sources, but observes that McHaffie still agreed with Eyre that 'certain Christadelphian beliefs were represented in various historical Christian groups' (Burke, Jonathan (2013). Living on the Edge: Challenges to Faith. Lively Stones Publishing, p. 1 n. 3.) 'Certain Christadelphian beliefs' 'represented in various historical Christian groups' obviously falls far short of the historical claim made in this objection.
  • 6 Unless, that is, it is willing to concede that Nicene Trinitarian Christianity did constitute the household of faith for many centuries, and to call Nicene Trinitarian Christianity its legitimate historical-ecclesiastical parent. In this case two additional questions present themselves: how did a church nourished by Christ hold a grievous doctrinal error as its central creed for many centuries, and how could a 'child movement' repudiate the core doctrines of its legitimate parent?
  • 7 In addition to citing warning passages like Acts 20:29-31 and 2 Tim. 4:3-4, Christadelphians offer a radical interpretation of apocalyptic passages concerning the eschatological 'Antichrist' figure, arguing that such passages predict the political success of 'apostate' Christianity under Constantine and the subsequent rise of the papacy. Space does not allow a discussion of such passages here, but suffice it to say that this reading of biblical apocalyptic has no standing in biblical scholarship, conservative or liberal. I have previously critiqued one particularly egregious error that contributes to this theory, namely the identification of the 'male child' of Rev. 12:5 as a usurping Constantine (in context, the male child clearly denotes Christ). The Constantine interpretation of Rev. 12:5 is so obviously wrong that it raises serious doubts about the competence of its proponents as expositors of Scripture.