This is the fourth in a series of articles on the Trinity, excerpted from “What Every Christian Should Know About the Trinity,” available in print and Kindle versions from Amazon.com.
Some critics of the Trinity doctrine protest that it is a late invention, formulated only after the Roman Emperor Constantine, a convert to Christianity, decreed an end to all persecution of Christians in AD 313 and convened the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in AD 325.
But the charge of doctrinal invention simply isn’t true, as we see from Scripture and the history of early Christians, who embraced both the deity of Christ and the deity and personhood of the Holy Spirit – although admittedly they often struggled to understand the mystery behind it.
Yes, the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople (AD 381) produced the Nicene Creed, but neither the councils nor Constantine manufactured the Trinity. Rather, the Nicene Creed settled the question of how Christians can worship one God and also claim that God is three persons.
It was also the first creed (a formal statement of Christian beliefs) to obtain universal authority in the church, and it improved the language of the Apostles’ Creed by including more specific statements about the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit.
As theologian Millard Erickson points out, there is no virtue in continuing to hold such a difficult doctrine as the Trinity if it is not actually taught in the Bible: “The church … drew the inference of the Trinity from two sets of evidence it accepted. On the one hand, the Bible taught that God is one. On the other hand, there were three persons whom the Bible seemed to identify as being divine.”
The Arian heresy
While the councils articulated the doctrine of the Trinity, they did not invent it. Rather, they sought to counter a creeping heresy that an Alexandrian presbyter named Arius spread early in the fourth century.
Arius asserted his theory that Jesus was not God. Instead, He was only a celestial servant of the true Most High God, who alone was almighty, transcendent, the creator and first cause of all things. Jesus, therefore, was a lesser being, highly exalted but created – a view that Jehovah’s Witnesses champion today.
After years of vigorous debate, the councils produced the Nicene Creed as a way of articulating what Scripture teaches about the nature and persons of the Godhead. The final form reads, in part:
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made …
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets …
As Nathan Jacobs observes, “In the most basic sense, then, Nicene Trinitarianism affirms that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct individuals or subjects who share a common nature, namely, the nature of God. This is what it means to confess the Holy Trinity as three hypostases of one ousia.”
The Greek word ousia refers to the nature or essence of something. For example, let’s say Bob, Judy, and Cybil are in the room. The ousia of these three is human. That’s the nature these three persons share.
But with respect to hypostasis, this word depicts an individual or a particular subject. In other words, Bob, Judy, and Cybil are three persons – hypostases – who share one ousia: humanity.
Put simply, there is only one divine nature, and only three persons share it: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
While Scripture indicates that followers of Jesus share the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4), it does not mean we become gods or absorb the immutable qualities of the Godhead, such as omniscience. Rather, it means the Holy Spirit brings life to our human spirits and makes us more like Jesus as we submit to the will of God (2 Pet. 1:4-11).
Next: False views of the Trinity