The Trinity Doctrine: Biblical Truth or Hellenic Philosophy?
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Early Christian Church Politics and Philosophy
To understand the argument and how things occurred, one needs a basic understanding of what effectively became the two main arguments leading up to the Nicaean Council and its decree or creed. One important factor that needs to be understood is the role that Emperor Constantine, as the Emperor of the Roman Empire in Constantinople which is modern day Istanbul played in this creed’s creation through this whole history.
Emperor Constantine, sometimes referred to as Constantine the Great, was espoused by many Christian denominations as the first Christian Roman Emperor, which is factually incorrect, at the time of the Nicaean issue, he was still a pagan worshipping emperor and never understood Christian Doctrine, theology or scripture and only converted to Christianity on his Death bed. What he did have however was the fact that he was the Emperor, and wanted stability within his empire, something the Christian’s could bring, if they would all agree with each other, unfortunately while there were many strains of belief and thought, there were two main streams of theological and philosophical thought around at the time. The main argument contributors with contending views were Arius and Athanasius, their views and perspectives very different.
It should be pointed out here for argument sake that many accuse Arius of holding the Greek Philosophical view point, however that is incorrect. Arius actually held a closely related Hebraic Viewpoint on the issue being discussed; it was actually Athanasius who held the strongly Greek Philosophical view point in this argument. We will now share some information on each of their perspectives.
Arius was a very ascetic man; he rejected many of the pleasures of the world and from what historical accounts we have, was a very devout man with sincere motives. A prominent priest in Alexandria, Egypt, he received his religious training in Antioch, the first location of the early assembly. He was taught by Lucian of Antioch, a well-known teacher and martyr of the early church. It should be noted here that Antioch Christian society and teachings were of a Hebraic nature and view, holding to a strict monotheistic interpretation of Scripture.
Arius’ beliefs and those of many others was that the Father and Son were distinct from one another, with the Father being superior to the Son. He maintained that the Son was the first directly created being of God the Father before the rest of creation. A better summation of Arius’ beliefs as well as we can know them, is as follows:
“[T]he Son was at one point created by God the Father and that before that time the Son did not exist, nor did the Holy Spirit, but the Father only. Thus, though the Son is a heavenly being who existed before the rest of creation and who is far greater than all the rest of creation, he is still not equal to the Father in all his attributes--he may even be said to be ‘like the Father’ or ‘similar to the Father’ in his nature, but he cannot be said to be ‘of the same nature’ as the Father.9”
This is in fact the Hebraic and 2nd Century Christian view, the Biblical references to this being accurate are many, however these we will discuss later in the Bible Study. For now, we will look at Athanasius views, who was opposed to Arius understanding.
Records about Athanasius, indicate that he was born in Alexandria and mentored in Alexandria under Alexander the Bishop of Alexandria. Alexandria was well known for its Greek philosophical viewpoints and discussions. Athanasius showed such promise that he was an ordained deacon in the Roman church before he was 30 years of age.
While by no means the sole person, Athanasius was the most influential at influencing those at the most important council of the Church. The difference between Arius and Athanasius understanding between the Father and Son was that Athanasius beliefs were clouded by Greek Philosophical concepts, and he believed that the Father and Son were co-equal and of the same ‘substance’. He “insisted that Christ had existed from all eternity with the Father and was of the same essence (homoousios) as the Father, although He was a distinct personality. He insisted upon these things because he believed that, if Christ were less than He had stated Him to be, He could not be the Saviour of men. The question of man’s eternal salvation was involved in the relationship of the Father and the son according to Athanasius. He held that Christ was coequal, coeternal and consubstantial with the Father…10”.
It should be noted here, that it is believed that the main well spring of Greek Philosophy into the Alexandrian Church and directly relating to Clement of Alexandria and Origen was Philo (20 B.C. to 50 A.D). This Jewish thinker and exegete, born in Alexandria, wrote extensively and became one of the “most influential Hellenistic Jews of his time. 11”
Hardon claims that Philo’s influence had much to do with the start of Arianism, yet the understanding of
Athanasius beliefs and the amount of Greek / Hellenic Philosophy included in Athanasius argument and belief holds far more philosophical terms and relationships than does the Arian concepts and relationships. Hardon’s explanation that Clement of Alexander and Origen used him freely, only points more directly to Athanasius philosophical beliefs about God and the Son; this can be seen in the following statement:
“Philo’s main achievement was his development of the allegorical interpretation of the Bible, which enabled him to find much of Greek Philosophy in the Old Testament, and to combine respect of his religion for the Pentateuch with his own penchant for a more spiritual understanding of the Word of God. 12”
We should clarify something for the reader of this Bible study however before moving on, these facts can be checked and should be of course, however some clarification of words from the above need to be done.
From the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:
1 : of, relating to, or having the characteristics of allegory
2 :having hidden spiritual meaning that transcends the literal sense of a sacred text
If “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine”, then how can anything anybody comes up with that finds a “hidden spiritual meaning that transcends the literal sense of a sacred text” be considered as correct? Even the Doctrine of the Trinity is seen as having its hidden spiritual meaning revealed, yet still a mystery
Hence Athanasius and the Alexandrian school of Philosophical thought regarding the nature or essence (homoousios) of the Word (Son), leading them to a serious issue with regard to the concept when matched against the Scriptural and Hebraic views of Arius and those of Antioch. These disagreements of doctrinal concepts are not the only issue however for the time, it was the interference of the Emperor Constantine and successive Emperors , for purely political reasons, which caused many problems as well.
9. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Bits & Bytes, 2015), https://www.olivetree.com/store/product.php?productid=17503↩
10. Earle E. Cairns, Christianity through the Centuries, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan,, 1996), http://www.monergismbooks.com/pdfs/christianitythroughcenturies.pdf↩
11. Fr. John a. Hardon S.J, "Historical Christology - Chapter V - Arianism and the Council of Nicea," in Institute on Religious Life (Chicago, Illinois: Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association, 2004). p. 1↩
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