This is part 2 of a series of articles on Tawheed and the Trinity. The first part focused on a scriptural comparison of the two concepts of God in light of the Qur’an and Bible. In this part we will compare Tawheed and the Trinity from a historical perspective.
EARLY CHURCH FATHERS
As we saw in part 1, the concept of the Trinity as believed in today isn’t explicitly present in Bible. So then, where did it come from?
Trinitarians like to quote early Church Fathers like Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240 CE) who spoke of a “trinitas” (Latin for ‘threeness’). They cite them as proof that the Trinity was the standard belief of Christians in the early Church. However such claims are misleading. When we properly examine the writings of individuals like Tertullian we find that this is not the case:
In other words, one of the earliest sources in the Church who talks of a ‘trinity’ never actually taught a doctrine of three co-equal persons. Tertullian’s understanding of scripture was that the Father and Son cannot be co-equal. The unbiblical concept of a Triune God like today did not develop until much later.
THE ARIAN CONTROVERSY
In the early fourth century a debate raged within the Church with regards to the nature Jesus and his precise relationship to God. Arius, a priest and theologian, and Bishop Athanasius, a Church Father, were the chief proponents of both sides of the debate. Athanasius was a Trinitarian who promoted the idea that Jesus was equal to God, whereas Arius promoted the idea that Jesus was in fact a creation of God and therefore inferior to God. A major contention for Arius and his followers, the Arians, with regards to the Trinity was that if the Son were equal to the Father, then there would be more than one God.
Before getting into details of the councils that were held to debate and resolve the issue, it’s worth addressing a contention that Trinitarians have with Arianism. They tend to downplay the seriousness of the controversy by brushing it off as a heresy, merely on the basis that it opposes the orthodoxy of Trinitarianism. We should avoid calling the Arians opponents of the orthodox position, because when the controversy was raging orthodoxy had yet to be defined. Indeed, some historians think that, at one point, there were more non-Trinitarian Christians than so-called orthodox Trinitarian believers. We can find evidence of this in the writings of the 2nd century Church Father Tertullian who commented:
Tertullian wrote the above under a chapter in his book titled “Sundry Popular Fears and Prejudices. The Doctrine of the Trinity in Unity Rescued from These Misapprehensions.” which indicates that the Trinity was a minority belief in the early Church which the masses rejected on the grounds that it was polytheistic.
Another piece of historical evidence is a sermon delivered by the famous fourth century churchman Gregory of Nyssa:
Gregory’s wry comment is fascinating for what it says and what it implies. It suggests that ordinary tradespeople and workers felt perfectly competent to debate abstract theological issues. It implies that Arianism, which Trinitarians now consider the archetypal heresy, was once at least as popular as the doctrine that Jesus is God. Gregory’s shopkeeper questions whether Jesus is “begotten or unbegotten” – that is, whether he is a creation of God or the Creator Himself. The bath attendant says that he was created “from nothing,” meaning that he was brought into existence like the rest of God’s creatures. And the baker asserts that Jesus is separate from and lesser than God. All of these are Arian positions.
Even among theologians Arianism was not some niche group, in the fourth century it had the upper hand of orthodoxy in Eastern, Greek-speaking part of the Roman empire while the Trinitarians dominated the Western, Latin-speaking part. At one point momentum was in favour of Arianism and it looked like it would triumph over Trinitarianism as it gained the upper hand in the Western provinces of the empire, so if Trinitarians want to argue that today orthodoxy is on their side on the basis of popularity, then at one point Arianism was in the dominant position and was therefore orthodoxy!
Trinitarianism was not even necessarily the default position of the bishops of the Roman empire in the middle of the fourth century. For example the high-ranking bishop of Constantinople, Macedonius, endorsed a Semi-Arian, non-Trinitarian position:
One of the most astounding historical facts about the Trinity is that the earliest Christians that promoted some version of the Trinity (such as Montanus, Valentinus, Tertullian, and Origen) were all later condemned by the Roman Catholic Church as heretics. On the other hand, Ignatius, Polycarp, Melito and others who taught a binitarian (not Trinitarian) view are considered to have been saints by the Roman Catholic Church. This demonstrates the frivolity of assigning labels like orthodox and heretic in the early Church.
We need to be more nuanced in our discussion of these subjects. We shouldn’t evaluate our beliefs as a popularity contest but rather on the strength of the arguments put forward. Arianism with its fundamental Trinitarian controversy must not be looked upon as an isolated theory by its founder Arius. When Christianity took hold in the Roman Empire, Church doctrine had yet to be fixed and so any concept of orthodoxy as it exists today is anachronistic. In order to properly appreciate this we need to understand the backdrop against which the early Church developed. The Church emerged in a Jewish and Greek world and so the primitive Church had to reconcile the notions they had inherited from Judaism with those they had derived from philosophy. In the words of the historian and Anglican bishop John Wand, “Jew and Greek had to meet in Christ” . The Jews proposed a supreme God who created by His word. The pagan Greeks could not see how a finite and changeable world could come from an eternal and changeless God . This struggle for a reconciliation of thought reached its climax with the Arian controversy.
COUNCIL OF NICEA
These disagreements about the nature of Jesus and his relationship to God deeply divided the Church into two opposing theological factions. Emperor Constantine, seeking to unify the Church, convened the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. The question to be settled was, “Is Jesus absolutely equal to the Father: always existing and of the very same substance, or not?” Bishops from all over the empire were summoned to the council where their differences would be debated with the aim of reaching an agreement. This was the first time in Christian history that such a council took place. Constantine told the delegates that they would enjoy the climate and also, with a hint of menace, that he intended to ‘be present as a spectator and participator in those things which will be done’ . It must be noted that Constantine was not interested in doctrinal purity; his motivation for calling the council was merely to assure the political stability of the Empire:
The Council of Nicea had three points of view represented at the meeting: the strict Arians, the semi-Arians and the strict Trinitarians. The strict Arians were a small minority who were led by Arius. They believed that Jesus is inferior to God and rejected the notion that Jesus is of the same substance as God. The strict Trinitarians were also a small minority, they were led by Athanasius. They believed that Arianism was a heresy because it questioned the deity of Jesus. The vast majority in attendance, however, took a middle position between Arianism and Trinitarianism. They were led by Eusebius of Caesarea and are referred to as “Semi-Arians”. They rejected the Trinitarian doctrine that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are of the same substance. Of this council, the Church historian Philip Schaff wrote:
This is further evidence that the Trinity was not the orthodox position of the early Church, since the majority of attending bishops did not hold to a pro-Trinitarian, anti-Arian view before the council.
The council proceedings caused the mood of the undecided majority to move towards an anti-Arian view. Because of this sudden swing away from Arianism, the goal of the council quickly shifted from seeking compromise to condemning Arianism on no uncertain terms. Since it was difficult to do this on Scriptural terms alone, the bishops decided to formulate a creed that specifically excluded Arianism from the scope of Christian belief. Key to it was a concept found nowhere in the Bible: homo-ousios (from the Greek ‘homos’, meaning “same”, and ‘ousia’, meaning “essence”). The anti-Arians wanted to insert this concept of Jesus being of the same substance of God into the official creedal statement of the Church. This anti-Arian clause was proposed by Emperor Constantine himself . Arius and his followers refused to accept it because they believed that Jesus was created by God and therefore materially separate from one another. Notice that the contention was not about passages of the Bible, but rather philosophy. This further reinforces the point that the Trinity is not a Biblical concept but rather external to the Bible. The Church had to come up with terms of “philosophical” (pagan/Greek) origin in order to explain it, as former Pope Benedict XVI states:
Faced with the awe-inspiring presence of the emperor of the known world, there could be little opposition: the majority of the bishops at the council ultimately agreed upon a creed, known thereafter as the “Nicene creed”:
When the creed was finished eighteen Bishops still opposed it. Constantine at this point intervened to threaten with exile anyone who would not sign for it. Two Libyan Bishops and Arius still refused to accept the creed. All three were exiled .
Although Constantine is usually remembered for the steps he took toward making Christianity the established religion of the Roman Empire, it would not be wrong to consider him as one of the chief driving forces behind the Nicene creed. It was he who proposed and perhaps even imposed the expression homo-ousios (“same essence”) at the Council of Nicea, and it was he who provided government aid to the so-called orthodox and exerted government pressure against non-conformists .
COUNCILS OF RIMINI AND SELEUCIA
The Council of Nicea however did not end the controversy, as many bishops of the Eastern provinces disputed the concept of homo-ousios, the central term of the Nicene creed. The debates among these groups continued and resulted in numerous meetings, and no fewer than fourteen further creedal formulas between 340 and 360, leading the pagan observer Ammianus Marcellinus to comment sarcastically: “The highways were covered with galloping bishops.” 
Emperor Constantine’s sons, among whom the empire was divided after his death, became even more embroiled in the theological disputes. The emperor in the West, Constans, sided with Nicea while the emperor in the East, Constantius, was anti-Nicea. Thus, a pattern was being set for political interference with theological issues on the part of civil rulers. Whether Arianism or the Nicene creed had the upper hand at any particular time depended upon which one had the favour of the emperor.
With the death of Constans in 350 CE his anti-Nicea brother Constantius became sole ruler of the Empire. In 359 CE he summoned two councils, one in the East at Seleucia and the other in the West at Rimini. These councils were attended by more bishops than at Nicea and were thus more representative of the entire Church. Like his father Constantine before him, Constantius also involved himself in the council proceeding, exerting pressure on the attending bishops. An anti-Nicean, pro-Arian creed was adopted, and thus Arianism became Orthodoxy in the Church. Writing about these councils, Saint Jerome remarked that the world “awoke with a groan to find itself Arian.”
COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE
The seeming triumph of Arianism was short lived. In 381 CE the Council of Constantinople was summoned by the emperor Theodosius I. The main business of the council was to re-establish the doctrine that had been set forth in the Nicene Creed. They did this by writing a new creed to remove some of the language of the Nicene Creed that had proven controversial and problematic. This council “sealed the final adoption of the faith of Nicea by the entire Church.” . And so the Nicene Creed first set out at the Council of Nicea 55 years earlier was ultimately victorious over Arianism in the end.
While this council reaffirmed the tenets of the faith which were delineated in Nicea, one specific area where doctrine had developed was in regard to the Holy Spirit. The divinity of the Holy Spirit was an important issue, as the Church debated and formalised its emerging view of the Trinity.
The council attributed four things to the Holy Spirit:
1. a divine title, ‘Lord,’
2. divine functions of giving life which He possesses by nature and of inspiring the prophets,
3. an origin from the Father not by creation but by procession,
4. supreme worship equal to that rendered to Father and to Son
Thus the Holy Spirit was voted as the third Person of the Trinity. It should be pointed out that the apostles had all been dead for hundreds of years before the position was agreed upon in 381 CE. The Catholic Church admits:
One of the reasons for the slow adoption of the Holy Spirit as a person of the Trinity is that unlike the Father and Son, the Bible presents the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force. The Trinitarian and evangelical scholar Harold O. J. states:
In other words we can understand that:
1. A concept close to what modern Trinitarians teach about the Holy Spirit was not widely accepted until the fourth century.
2. Normal understanding of Koine Greek reveals that the Holy Spirit would be impersonal – not a person.
3. Second-century heretics were associated with treating the Holy Spirit as a person.
4. Early church writers made statements contradicting the current Trinitarian view of the Holy Spirit.
While the equality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son was established at this council, it said that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father, it said nothing concerning the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Son. This is the last section of the Creed:
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified.
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
The Creed was later translated into Latin with the addition, “who proceeds from the Father and the Son”:
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified.
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
Filioque (Latin for “and from the Son”), is a phrase that has been the subject of great controversy between Eastern and Western churches. Whether one includes that phrase, and exactly how the phrase is translated and understood, can have important implications for how one understands the central Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
The Filioque is now included in the Creed used in most Western churches. However it is rejected by the Eastern Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodox Churches. Differences over this doctrine still remain as a point of contention and are a primary cause of schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Western churches .
At the close of the Council of Constantinople, Emperor Theodosius issued an imperial decree declaring that the churches should be restored to those bishops who confessed the equal divinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit:
Historical scholar Jonathan Roberts wrote:
Thus, Arianism was officially outlawed. It was extinguished not by the force of Scriptural truth, but by the force of Imperial involvement. After over 55 years of battle, the Nicene Creed permanently gained the upper hand and Trinitarianism became the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.
COUNCIL OF CHALCEDON
Even after Arianism was defeated, debate raged on about the nature of the incarnate Jesus as he walked upon the earth. While the Council of Nicea focused on the precise relationship of the Son to God the Father, the question that now had to be settled was did Jesus have a single nature, a mixture of human and divine, or a dual nature – human and divine, both distinct and not blurred together?
In the year 451, the council of Chalcedon was summoned to address nature of Jesus. The bishops arrived at the understanding of the two natures of Christ in one person. They adopted the Creed of Chalcedon, which stated that:
This concept of a dual human and divine nature in the person of Jesus is known as the Hypostatic Union, as essential component of modern Trinitarianism. Yet it wasn’t until the Council of Chalcedon that we see the emergence of an official doctrine of the Trinity in a form that is recognisable with what Trinitarians believe in today. This took place in the fifth century, over 400 years after Jesus!
The evangelical theologian and Professor Wayne A. Grudem sums this up as follows:
1. The Trinity doctrine as it is believed in today did not emerge as the official doctrine of the Church until the fifth century — over 400 years after Jesus. Yet today it is considered to be so pivotal to mainstream Christianity that any divergence is enough to be labelled a disbeliever or member of a cult. How central to the early Church could a doctrine, not fully formulated until a much later date, actually be? Anything that was truly fundamental for the Christian faith must have been clear and accepted by the Church from the first century. This fact alone demonstrates the fallacy of the Trinity.
2. The doctrine did not come into the Church easily, but rather through a great deal of dispute. Every fundamental aspect of the doctrine – the relationship of Jesus to God, the deity of the Holy Spirit, the dual nature of Jesus – was borne out of council proceedings spanning over a century. These were not dominated solely by scriptural discussion; politics and philosophy played significant roles.
3. Imperial involvement in the controversy determined at any given moment whether Trinitarianism or Arianism was dominating the controversy. This must be a sobering thought, that the Nicene Creed won in the end is almost an accident of history. It is noteworthy that the theological beginning of the Trinity doctrine occurred at the same council presided over and influenced by the Roman Emperor Constantine – not a minister or even a theologian, but a political figure. To him, it was not a matter of true doctrine, but what was politically expedient. If Constantine or any subsequent emperors had favoured Arianism, then the tides of history could very well have turned in its favour and Arianism could be orthodoxy today!
HOW DOES TAWHEED COMPARE
By comparison Islamic monotheism, Tawheed, underwent no such historical evolution, the entire doctrine was finalised during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Muslims hold to the same creed to this very day. All that have tried to introduce something new into the creed of the religion have been rejected purely on the basis that it was not taught by Prophet Muhammad. This is the standard that Muslim scholars have held to since the beginning of Islam. These strict standards have been built into the religion since its inception, preserving the purity of Tawheed:
The Qur’an also states that Islam was perfected during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad. If something has been perfected then there is no need for any further changes:
It must be emphasised that the Prophets of God were not just mere delivery men for Scripture, they were also teachers and as such performed the invaluable function of explaining the words of God to mankind. It’s not enough to just have the preservation of a text; mankind also needs the correct meaning and interpretation to understand God’s intention. The Qur’an tells us:
A unique aspect of Islam is the body of literature known as Hadith, the sayings and actions of Prophet Muhammad as recorded by his companions. So not only do Muslims today have access to same Qur’an from the time of Prophet Muhammad, but we also have its correct meaning and interpretation. Thanks to the Hadith we know more about Prophet Muhammad than any other religious figure in history, even down to the smallest of details such as how many white hairs he had in his beard. This treasure trove of information provides us detailed explanations of Tawheed. This is why Muslims have not had to fall into conflict over basic creedal issues. There has never been a council in Islamic history where Muslim scholars had to gather together to formulate Tawheed and then impose it as orthodoxy by outlawing dissenting views. The purity and clarity of Islamic Tawheed could not be more at odds with the turbulent history of the Trinity.
THE STATE OF THE TRINITY TODAY
What is the state of the Trinity today? Even after more than 1,500 years of evolution and fine tuning, Trinitarians still walk a tightrope of heresy whenever they discuss the doctrine. As a result of the various councils that we’ve discussed, today we’re at the point where Jesus is officially considered both God and man, with his divine nature and his human nature being eternally united (otherwise known as the Hypostatic Union). However in the centuries when the Trinity was being developed, a popular heresy known as Nestorianism separated the two natures of Jesus. Nestorians believed that the two natures were not joined together in a union.
Although Nestorianism was condemned as a heresy at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE, every Trinitarian today falls into this heresy in relation to the Crucifixion. When challenged by Muslims on the point that it’s impossible for God to die on the cross because He is eternal by definition, Trinitarians respond by saying that it was only the flesh of Jesus that suffered and died, not his divine nature. But by putting forward this defence of the Trinity, they fall into heresy without even realising it. In isolating the human nature from the divine nature they are disuniting the natures of Jesus and thus they fall into Nestorianism when defending their doctrine!
Today such confusion is rampant throughout Trinitarian teachings. This problem of holes appearing in one area of theology in light of other areas is a sure sign of human tampering of the religion. This confusion is all the more damning when we consider the New Testament’s prediction that “all things” would be taught to Christians:
So the Advocate was supposed to explain all things, yet today Trinitarians cannot avoid falling into heresy when defending the doctrine. This is despite over 1,500 years of councils and the collective efforts of the most brilliant minds that Christendom has to offer. What should we make of all this confusion? If the Advocate that Jesus spoke of explained all the important things, then why not the Trinity? The implication is that the Trinity is not from God, or that Jesus made a false prophecy.
There is a light in all this darkness for Trinitarians. Perhaps the Advocate that would “explain all things” has already been sent. God, out of His mercy for mankind, resolved all of this confusion in the 7th century by delivering the Qur’an to Prophet Muhammad through the Holy Spirit, the angel Gabriel. One of the names of the Qur’an is Al Furqan, meaning “the Criterion between truth and falsehood”. So the Qur’an not only confirms the Scriptures that came before it, but also corrects the mistakes that have entered them:
It is clear that the Qur’an provides the best guidance for those who are seeking the truth. Peace in this life and success in the hereafter is at the fingertips of mankind. All we have to do is acknowledge and submit to it.
1. When Jesus Became God, Richard E. Rubenstein.
2. A History of Christianity, Diarmaid MacCulloch.
1 – Tertullian, Against Praxeas, chapter 9 – The Catholic Rule of Faith Expounded in Some of Its Points. Especially in the Unconfused Distinction of the Several Persons of the Blessed Trinity.
2 – Ibid., chapter 3 – Sundry Popular Fears and Prejudices. The Doctrine of the Trinity in Unity Rescued from These Misapprehensions.
3 – W. H. C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, p 636.
4 – Mansi, III, col. 560.
5 – John William Charles Wand. 1955. The Four Great Heresies, p. 39
6 – Guitton, Jean. 1965. Great Heresies and Church Councils, p. 81
7 – Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity, p. 214.
8 – Emperor Constantine as quoted in History of the Christian Church, vol. 3, p. 626.
9- Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume 3, pp. 627-628.
10 – Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity, p. 214.
11 – Catechism of the Catholic Church, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, p. 74.
12 – Encyclopedia Britannica, pp. 410-411, v. 16, 14th ed.
13 – Richard E. Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God, p. 83.
14 – Brown HOJ. Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church. Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody (MA), 1988, pp. 332-333.
15 – Ammianus Marcellinus, as cited by Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), III:632.
16 – The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967, Vol. 1. Arianism, by V.C. Declercq, p. 793.
17 – Catechism of the Catholic Church. Imprimatur Potest, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Doubleday, p. 72.
18 – Brown HOJ, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church, p. 140.
19 – Walter Kasper, The Petrine ministry: Catholics and Orthodox in dialogue : academic symposium held at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, p. 188.
20 – Theodosian Code XVI.1.2. Cited in Bettenson H, ed., Documents of the Christian Church, London: Oxford University Press, 1943, p. 31.
21 – Roberts JM. Antiquity Unveiled: Ancient Voices from the the Spirit Realms Disclose the Most Startling Revelations, Proving Christianity to be of Heathen Origin, University of Michigan, May 21, 2007, p. 468.
22 – Grudem, Systematic Theology: Chapter 26 – The Person of Christ, 1994, p. 554.
23 – Hadith at-Tirmidhi.