The Doctrine of the Trinity is not Pagan in Origin
Critics of the doctrine of the Trinity, argue that the origins of the doctrine are pagan. They point to a variety of pagan religions where you can see three gods having primacy. Alternatively, they point to the school of Plato as being the source of Trinitarian thinking. In this blog, I will seek to refute these arguments. I will prove that the Doctrine of the Trinity is not pagan in origin.
The Doctrine of the Trinity does not leap out of the pages of Scripture. It is the product of a growing knowledge of God based on biblical reflection. This is true in fact of many doctrines that we hold. You can point to scriptures supporting a doctrine without it being annunciated succinctly in a particular set of verses.
It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, and it is the glory of a king to search out a matter.Prov 25:2 NET
One of our greatest acts of worship (to ascribe worth) to our God is to seek His character and being. We need to grow in knowledge of God, for that is life eternal. (Jn 17:3)
God is One God and Unique in the World
So the doctrine of the Trinity developed over time through people of God reasoning, debating and reflecting on the Scriptures in the quest to know more of God. The doctrine of the Trinity is not pagan in origin. Instead, it is the product of a reasoned approach. Deuteronomy 6:4 for example, proclaims the unity of God in the face of pagan beliefs in a multiplicity of deities. This is a cry to ensure that we not be distracted by this pantheon of gods around us. As the next verse says, “You must love Yahweh, your God with your whole mind, your whole being and all your strength.” (v5)
Jesus, The Word
The doctrine of the trinity is not pagan in origin. It is in fact preached in the gospel as I point out in my previous blog. Have a look at John 1:1-3. If you accept that the “Word” spoken of by John is Jesus (which I think is clear), then you have to accept v1 “the Word was fully God”. Unitarians will try to twist this in all sorts of ways, but the text is unequivocal.
Again, Paul’s assertion in Col 1:15-20 that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, in whom all of His fullness dwells, is typically twisted by unitarians using convoluted logic around metaphor and the doctrine of God Manifestation. Paul is plain here. Jesus is the perfect representation of God. Jesus is the indwelling fullness of God.
The Doctrine of the Trinity is not Pagan in Origin
The developing doctrine of the Trinity was articulated in its early stages by Tertullian, Origen and Athanasius. They articulated much of the doctrine around the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I repeat, the doctrine of the Trinity is not pagan in origin. It was merely articulated by these churchmen. That’s a whole lot different from taking the doctrine from a pagan source and passing it off as being from the Bible.
The Arian heresy clearly sparked a significant development in understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. Much was written to counter Arius, which is why we get the writings of these three in particular. Again, this does not mean that the doctrine was absent prior to these men.
The argument could be made that writers such as Athanasius were simply toeing the party line of Constantine in the lead up to the Nicean Council. In fact, Athanasius was not only in conflict throughout his early career against Arius but also against a succession of emperors starting with Constantine.
Arius taught that Christ was made, not begotten and therefore subordinate to God though still part of the Trinity. This was a common doctrine in Alexandria led by Eusebius of Nicomedia. Therefore this illustrates that a form of doctrine of the Trinity was not rare in the first few centuries. Its form might have been debated, but the doctrine existed.
Triads of Gods
Sadly, those who seek to assert that the doctrine of Trinity is pagan get very selective in their quoting of sources. Have a look at this breakdown for an example. As a unitarian of a few years ago, I was guilty of this myself. Bruce M Metzger notes “the mere presence of trinities in pagan mythology is irrelevant to the origin of the doctrine of the Trinity in Christian theology.” This is important.
For a parallel, let’s consider the story of Moses. Many suggest that the story of Moses was based on the story of Sargon of Akkad or Sargon the Great. For a brief consideration of the parallels in the two stories, have a look at this article. Both were placed in a river by their mothers and both were rescued by someone. That’s where the similarities end. If you look at the detail of both, they are very different.
The mere fact that you find triads of Gods in other early cultures is meaningless. None of them match the story and framework of our God’s engagement with this world. The similarity is merely superficial and can safely be ignored.
The specific details of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity are not found in any pagan religion. The Trinity is one God who exists eternally in three persons who are equal in nature and distinct in their roles. Millard Erikson states “while it is true that various religions have had triads of deities, the concept of the Trinity is unique to Christianity.”
Philosophy and Thinking about the Doctrine of the Trinity
The belief that the Doctrine of the Trinity was the product of Plato’s philosophy is a common misconception that has been around for centuries. It is not supported by historical evidence or theological analysis.
As we note above, the doctrine of the Trinity is not pagan in origin. It emerged in a distinctly Christian context. The early Church was steeped in Jewish and Christian scripture. It sought to articulate a coherent understanding of the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit that was faithful to the biblical witness.
Certainly, some Christian thinkers were influenced by Greek philosophy, including Plato. Claiming this philosophy as the source of the doctrine is over-egging in the worst way. In fact, the Church was highly critical of many aspects of Platonic philosophy, especially its rejection of the material world.
There are significant differences between Plato’s philosophy and the doctrine of the Trinity. Plato’s concept of the divine involves a hierarchy of Forms or Ideas, with the highest Form being Good. The Trinity on the other hand, emphasises the unity of God in three distinct, co-eternal, co-equal persons who are not separate.
Platonic thinking is characterised by dualism between material and spiritual realms. The Trinity emphasises the unity of God in both transcendent and immanent aspects. God is transcendent in his absolute and infinite nature, beyond the physical world and human comprehension. He is not bound by time, space or physical limitation. God is immanant in that He is present in everything that exists. Rather than the Platonic view that the physical is a pale imitation of the spiritual, the Spiritual and the Physical are two different states in which God exists and acts.
Fundamentally, Plato believed in a multitude of Gods or divine beings, the Trinity does not match this world view.
the mere coincidence of triads of Gods in other ancient religions is not indicative of Pagan sources for the doctrine of the Trinity.
Some Christian thinkers were clearly influenced by Greek philosophy, including Plato. It is nevertheless wrong to assert that the doctrine of the Trinity was merely transplanted doctrine from Plato. This was not a Christianised version of Platonic thought.
The doctrine emerged within Christianity as an articulation of scriptural concepts around the nature of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Any resemblance to pagan concepts is not evidence that the doctrine of the Trinity is pagan in origin. The doctrine of the trinity is not pagan in origin. It is an articulation of scriptural principles by early church fathers who grew in knowledge of God, Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit.