The Trinity in its current state is a theory that developed 200 hundred years after the death of Jesus. In our creeds we actually have a snapshot in time of a theological debate which has been frozen for over 1800 years. To understand the Trinity as a concept however we have to go back to the Judaism into which Jesus was born and understand the environment in which Christianity developed.
In the four accounts we have of Jesus’ ministry there are three strands of material: Peter’s memories of incidents and exchanges during a two year mission as written down by Mark; and a second similar strand coming from John’s memories. The third element are the parables which record the big scale sermons which pad out Mark in Matthew & Luke but they don’t involve Jesus talking about himself. Peter only remembers Jesus talking about himself as ‘The Son’ and to the ‘Son of Man’ whereas John remembers a richer variety – the good shepherd, the bread of life, the light of the world, the way the truth & the life – and there are plausible reasons for that. In neither is there an explicit claim however and in all the accounts Jesus describes himself poetically rather than anything else. We don’t know why. Maybe he was still working it out; maybe he was just careful about lighting the fuse too early, maybe he didn’t want to put people off with outlandish claims or maybe the poetic references conveyed his own understanding that he was ‘of God’ in a way better than an actual description does. Occasional quotes such as “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” etc are comment from the author rather than quotes. They cannot have been Jesus’ direct teaching: not unless he favoured a passing stranger with a much more direct claim than he did his close disciples.
The start of the evolution wherein Jesus comes to be accepted as the Son of God is seen in the later days of Jesus’ ministry; and the Johannine scholar, Dr John Robinson, believes that when the author of John’s gospel uses the idea of the Son (along with Word & Logos in chapter 1) he is describing the relationship between Jesus and God i.e. as a son is to a father. For Greek thinkers developing early theology the phrase The Son of God demanded a divine intervention in the procreation of Jesus; however, other than when discussing the mechanism of Jesus’ divinity it doesn’t actually matter. It is absolutely clear from the parable of the Wicked Tenants in Matthew that Jesus claimed a unique relationship with the God whom he called ‘his Father’.
Jesus died in 30 or 33 AD. The gospels are conventionally dated in a spectrum between 70 to 90AD, although Dr Robinson’s inherently plausible approach dates them earlier (40 to 60AD), whilst the letters of Paul particularly are from the period between 50 & 60AD. The gospels are a formalisation of what must have been passing around by word of mouth – the ministry of the man Jesus who had been acclaimed as ‘Christ’. The letters of Paul and other writers are specific communiques to the early communities of believers encouraging them, dealing with practical problems emerging within them and fleshing out what the faith meant in practice. What came next however was a consequence of a number of factors:
- The location of Palestine within the Hellenistic (Greek influenced) Eastern Mediterranean conquered by Alexander the Great.
- The pre-eminence of Greek thoughts within the Roman empire.
- The fact that Judaism was also highly thought of within the empire.
- The missionary efforts of Paul.
The Greek philosophies of Plato and Aristotle that so influenced the empire were very different to the ideas of the Jews; but there was inevitably a cross fertilisation of ideas. So after the initial enthusiasm of Jesus’ message had worn off the new Christians had a question: what did understanding Jesus as the Son of God actually mean? Over those first 300 years we see a variety of idea about exactly what Jesus was, what the Holy Spirit was and about how they related to God.
For the very start of this process we have to go back to the time when the Hebrews had split into two Kingdoms. The larger, wealthier Kingdom of Israel had been defeated by the Assyrian empire in the middle of 8C and the 10 tribes carried off into slavery. Many times in the history of the three big faiths – Judaism, Christianity & Islam – big shocks to a civilisation have resulted in major changes in theology. In this case by 100 years later there was a trend amongst those remaining Hebrews inhabiting the small Kingdom of Judah, which was Jerusalem and what we now call the West Bank: Yahweh had become the ONLY God rather than being the tribal god of the Hebrews and there was an amount of editing of the Torah – those first books of what we call the Old Testament – to reflect it. Added to that the the Kingdom of Judah picked the wrong side in a fight between Babylon & Egypt and ended up being utter defeated with the elite of society being carted off into captivity, as was standard practice by the Babylonians. That inevitably brought more souls searching. Just one of the small changes that comes out of this period is a split between talking about the essence of God and about his manifestation on earth. This is when references emerge to the Glory of God and later the Word of God (translated as Logos in Greek) and the Wisdom of God (Sophia in Greek); and these ideas evolve further such that Wisdom and Word mean God’s blueprint on earth.
Critically the word Logos was also used entirely separately in Greek Philosophy to mean the principle of order and knowledge in Greek philosophy. So what John was doing in those first verses of his gospel – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” etc – was making sense of Jesus with this concept of ‘the blueprint of God’ in a way that appealed both to Jews and to Greeks. The fact is though that John, Paul and all the other writers accepted Jesus as ‘OF God’ but wouldn’t have seen him AS God. Theirs was a poetic understanding of the significance of Jesus as Son of God.
Over the next few hundred years theologians continued to try and define the unknowable; and the next big change comes around the end of 2C. We go from Theophilus of Antioch writing about God, Jesus as His Word (Logos) and the Holy Spirit as His Wisdom (Sophia) 150 years after the death of Jesus; to Tertullian who first uses the word ‘Trinity’ and who starts defining Father, Son & Holy Spirit as aspects, faces, masks of God at the turn of the century. We’ve now abandoned earlier poetic understandings of Father, Son & Holy Spirit and replaced them by attempts to DEFINE exactly what the fundamentals of the relationship are. Move forward another hundred years to 325BC and you get to our Nicene creed as an attempt to end the debate about how what is now known as The Trinity relate to each other, and this is the point where Constantine imposes a solution.
Interestingly one of the defining elements of Christianity is this fact of having to think in approved ways or risk being labelled a heretic – and it isn’t the case for Jews and Moslems.
It was only at the time of the Enlightenment towards the end of 17C that people started questioning again; but then throughout history we’ve all tended to reinvent God in the light of our own understanding of the world. As a civilisation that is no longer interested in metaphysics & philosophy in the way the Greeks were how can we rationalize the changing ideas of God and of Jesus? Well if you take a step backwards you can see that the 4C ideas of the Trinity and the 1C ideas about Jesus as the Word of God actually mean the same. Both ends of an evolving 300 year timeline are attempts to describe the fact that: God IS; God is as he is in Jesus; and that the God we see revealed in Jesus is a God of Love; and both are consistent with the earlier emotional response to Jesus that saw his followers acclaiming him as ‘Son of God’. In other words: that there is a ‘creator entity’ we call God and that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth we see everything we need to know about the nature of our God; and furthermore that as revealed in Jesus we have an active & interested God whose primary focus is Love. FATHER, SON and HOLY SPIRIT.