Antitrinitarianism

19.05.2018 Author: psiholog pavel horoshutin

Antitrinitarianism (translated from Latin as “against” and “Trinity”) or Nontrinitarianism is the common umbrella term for Christian movements.

In it adherents claim the belief in One God but reject the concept of the Trinity. Antitrinitarians do not approve of the doctrine of “unmerged and equal” persons (hypostases) of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Although the doctrine of the Trinity is recognized by the overwhelming majority of modern Christian denominations, the arguments of Antitrinitarians have attracted the attention of many prominent personalities over the centuries. Isaac Newton, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, William Penn, Lev Tolstoy and others were famous Christian-Antitrinitarians.

There are 36 to 37 million adherents of Antitrinitarianism among the Christian population.

Antitrinitarianism in world history 

The first idea of the Trinity was formed and approved during the First Nicene Council in 325, and after it was augmented in 451 it became known as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.

In the Early Christian Age (1st to 3rd century AD) the first Christians discussed the issues of the essence and mission of Christ and His relation to God. One of the philosophic streams that became strongly connected to Christianity was Gnosticism (which emerged before Christ). For Gnostics, Jesus was God’s ambassador whose mission was to turn people towards good and spirituality.  He did not have human nature. Gnostics talked about two Gods: a good one (the Father of Jesus Christ) and his evil antipode from the Old Testament. First Creeds seem to have been stated to withstand these opinions. The first of these was the Old Roman Creed which claimed to believe in God the Father and the Son, incarnated from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. Later, theologians supported the idea of the non-uniqueness of God and developed it in their works.

Starting in the 4th сentury, members of Antitrinitarian groups (Arians, Unitarians, etc.) were regarded as heretics and severely persecuted by the church and secular officials. For this reason, Antitrinitarian views were never popular among Christians. In the 4th-5th century, the concept of the Trinity was ultimately formed and stated. In the early 4th century, when Christianity became an official religion of the Roman Empire, the disputes about the hypostases of God flared up with renewed vigour.

At that time, Arius, a presbyter from Alexandria, introduced the concept that Jesus was created by God and is only like God. The other concept was introduced by the deacon (later bishop) Athanasius who later was venerated as one of the Greek Church Fathers and claimed as a saint by both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. He believed that the Father and the Son are “consubstantial”. Arius categorically disagreed with Athanasius and reproached him for rejecting monotheism and worshipping a created being other than God. His opponents in their turn believed that his teaching actually rejected the divine nature of Christ. At the Nicene council, Arius did not manage to defend his views.

As a result of such a clash of the two theological systems the Emperor was convinced by Athanasius and supported the Trinitarian idea. At the same council the Nicene Creed was introduced in which an equal divinity of God the Father and Jesus was articulated. The Trinitarian formula with the Holy Spirit mentioned, was added later.

Antitrinitarianism

The bishops that did not accept the Nicene Creed were defrocked, proclaimed as heretics and exiled. All the texts by Arius were burned. During the Reformation era (16th-17th centuries) the doctrine of the Trinity was not changed, yet some thinkers – both Catholic and Protestant – tried to understand the truth of this idea and criticized it. Some Antitrinitarians claimed that the essence of the Trinity is incomprehensible, irrational and not to be subject to human consideration. Others tried to criticize the concept through Biblical or rational arguments. Antitrinitarianism became popular among the Anabaptists who tried to return to the origins of Christianity.

To identify their disagreements with traditional theology, Antitrinitarians called themselves Unitarians, that is, those who believe in One God. Numerous attempts to explain the doctrine of the Trinity from the rational point of view resulted in new heresies.

In the late 18th – early 19th century, Antitrinitarian beliefs spread legally in Western Europe, and in the 19th century, the authorities became more tolerant to the views of the Antitrinitarians. In 1813 the Unitarian Relief Act in Britain cancelled criminal prosecution against Unitarians. That did not mean they achieved equal rights with the other confessions but it allowed them to proclaim their beliefs explicitly. In the second half of the 19th century, many European countries became more tolerant of Antitrinitarians, though traditional confessions kept their enmity.

The modern state of Antitrinitarianism was developed in the 18th-19th centuries when it was ultimately called Unitarism, and its beliefs influenced British and American society in many ways. In 1961 the adherents of Unitarism joined the Universalist Church of America, and nowadays there is a community of people with various theological and philosophical views that is called the Unitarian Universalist Association. This unites about 800 confessions and 300 communities in Canada, the USA and Mexico.

Since the 20th century, Oneness Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses have become the most established of the Antitrinitarian confessions.

Antitrinitarian arguments against the trinity

The Antitrinitarians put forth an opinion that the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be explained rationally. They argue that it is hard to understand why One God consists of three separate, “unmerged” personalities that communicate with each other. The opponents of the Trinity doctrine believe that the early Christians did not know this, and the term “Trinity” is mentioned in neither the Old nor New Testaments.

According to Trinitarian theologians, the Trinity is a mystery that cannot be comprehended by the limited human mind. This point provoked the question of Antitrinitarians: if the Trinity is an incomprehensible mystery, why should theologians reflect and draw conclusions on God with their limited reason and then make these conclusions a dogma? Opponents also say that the phrase “God is One in three persons” came into existence because of Pagan Polytheism and strong pressure from the government.

Regarding the Holy Spirit, the adepts of Antitrinitarianism believe that this element distorts the original Christianity and is incompatible with the definitions of God the Father and Jesus Christ from the Gospel.

For example, Lev Tolstoy believed that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is confused and contradicts common sense and the idea of Monotheism. He and his adepts referred to Christianity as an ethical teaching and they protested against the church tradition which was an extraneous centuries-old stratification that distorts the essence of Christianity.

Counter-arguments of the trinitarian christians

Theologians that support the Trinity doctrine acknowledge that this doctrine is a mystery that cannot be explained rationally. They state this as the reason why it so contradictory and cannot be completely understood by the human mind. To support the concept of the triple divine nature of God, they use the following ideas from the Old and New Testaments:

  • The plural form of the word “God” in the Old Testament (“Elohim”)
  • The baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist in the New Testament is a place where all three hypostases of the Trinity meet;
  • In the Gospel of John 1:1 the Word means Jesus, the Word is God, not a part of God or His creation. At the same time, Jesus is not equal to God but is another hypostasis.

Trinitarians explain the equality of the Spiritual Statuses of the Father and the Son with the help of various passages from the Gospels and the Epistles (to Romans or Philippians).

The explain the absence of the term “Trinity” in the New Testament as unecessary since it was known to the Evangelists.

Theologians often ground their doctrine on the phrase from 1 John 5:7 (For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one). Yet neither Early Christian writers nor such theologians as Origen, Augustine, Clement or Athanasius of Alexandria mentioned this in their works. This “Johannine Comma” was a matter of many disputes between Trinitarians and Antitrinitarians although most of the scholars believe that this phrase was first written as a marginal note on a copy of a manuscript of the First Epistle of John and the latter was added to the text itself during one of the rewritings.

Judaic and islamic view on the trinity

Both Jews and Muslims strongly deny the concept of the divine Trinity. Judaism does not accept the idea that Jesus is a Messiah promised by the prophets, and it rejects the doctrine of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ. The attempt to put Jesus in human form on a par with God is considered blasphemous by the Jews. Moses ben Nahman, a great Jewish theologian, stated that God is neither born nor dies and any mind should not believe that God was incarnate in a human baby.

Islam rejects the concept of the Trinity in any form. According to the Quran, only Allah, the One God, is to be worshipped. Jesus Christ or, as it is written in the Quran, the Messiah Isa ibn Maryam was one of the prophets and ambassadors of Allah. The Quran says that Allah, as the only God, is pure and far from having a son.

Antitrinitarians are adherents of doctrines that oppose the acceptance of the concept of the Trinity. There is no unity of belief among the Antitrinitarian confessions, but all Christians who consider themselves as Antitrinitarians extol Jesus Christ and the New Testament, yet believe that the historical doctrine of the Trinity is an arbitrary and contradictory distortion of original Christian belief.

Due to long-term persecutions, Antitrinitarian views are not well-spread among Christians. Yet there are associations and communities with Antitrinitarian doctrines that continue to exist in the USA, Canada, Mexico, Great Britain and some other countries.