Who Invented The Trinity?

The Da Vince Code claimed that the Divinity of Jesus—and hence, the doctrine of the Trinity—was invented at the Council of Nicea in 325.  I know, I know, it’s only fiction!  But so many people have accepted this claim as scholarly fact, it’s become a commonly held belief.  In this week’s blog, I’m going to continue to respond to some great comments I received that challenged the idea that the Trinity is found in the Bible.  But, unlike last week, I won’t assume that the Bible is the Inspired Word of God.  Instead, I’ll use the best, recent scholarship to show where the Trinity actually originated—spoiler alert: it wasn’t the Council of Nicea!

Of course, the one thing The Da Vinci Code does have right is that the doctrine of the Trinity is driven by belief in Jesus’ divinity.  No one would have ever thought to conceive of God as Three Persons if they weren’t first compelled to think of God as Two Persons, Father and Son.  Scholars are unanimously agreed on this point. 

These scholars used to think that this belief in Jesus’ divinity only developed toward the end of the First Century, some seventy years after Jesus’ death, during the second or third Christian generation.  Many argued that belief in Jesus’ divinity was influenced by Pagan mythology—Gentiles who formerly believed in a pantheon of gods applied these ideas to Jesus.  This is how Jesus became God!

However, roughly twenty-five years ago that all changed.  A scholar named Larry Hurtado wrote a groundbreaking book called One God, One Lord which radically reversed the scholarly consensus.  He showed that, as early as we can trace, even prior to the writing of the first New Testament books, the very first Jewish Christians were already worshiping Jesus as God. 

For example, in Philippians 2:6-11 Paul is borrowing from an early Christian hymn that scholars believe was used in the earliest Palestinian Jewish churches’ worship.  The hymn proclaims that at Jesus’ name “every knee will bow” and “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”  This is a direct allusion to Isaiah 45:23 where YHWH insists that before Him alone every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He alone is Lord.  Clearly, in this hymn of praise to Christ, Jesus is being worshipped alongside the Father as the One True God.  There could be no higher or more explicit way for a First-Century Jew to express Jesus’ divinity. 

Now, the scholarly consensus holds that Jesus was worshipped as God virtually right from the beginning, very soon after His death on the Cross.

But what about the Holy Spirit?  Where did He, and hence the Trinity, come in?  Hurtado’s work only shows that there are Two Persons in the Godhead, not Three.  So when did belief in the Holy Spirit as the Third Divine Person develop? 

N.T. Wright is probably the greatest New Testament scholar of our day.  He has pointed out that even in the earliest New Testament documents, written in the late 40’s to early 50’s, about twenty years after Jesus’ death, there is absolutely no hint of controversy about Jesus’ divinity.  In these letters to various churches, Paul has to argue many things, but never that Jesus is Lord.  It is such a well-established belief that he can simply presume it. 

Wright goes on to show that, although not as prominently featured, the same can be said about the Holy Spirit.  In these earliest New Testament documents, the distinct personality and divinity of the Spirit is simply presumed.  As early as we can trace, the Church viewed the Holy Spirit as a separate Person within the divine identity.  (N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Part II, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013, pp. 709-728) 

In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit is simply portrayed as God’s spirit—the imminent presence of Yahweh upon the earth.  However, Paul talks about the Holy Spirit as a unique divine Person.  And he simply assumes that everyone he’s writing to would readily acknowledge this to be true.  In various places, he mentions the Spirit acting with an agency that is only proper to a person: the Spirit leads, gives witness, comes alongside, helps, pleads, thinks, wishes, intends, and pours the love of God into our hearts.  Perhaps the best example of this agency is found in First Corinthians 12:1-13.  In verse 11, Paul talks about the Spirit giving different spiritual gifts as He chooses, to whomever He wills. 

What’s most remarkable about this passage, though, is that Paul is making a completely separate point—which has nothing to do with who the Spirit is!  He’s trying persuade the Corinthians that no one spiritual gift is greater than another; each is equally vital.  Some in Corinth were causing divisions because they had developed a spiritual elitism that privileged certain gifts—and, therefore, people—over others.  This is what Paul is addressing.

But in the process, he makes a “trinitarian” reference without feeling any need to explain or defend it:  “There are different gifts, but the same Spirit.  There are different ministries, but the same Lord.  There are different works, but the same God…”(vs. 4-6)  As is widely recognized among scholars, God, Lord, and Spirit are the equivalent of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  In a matter of fact, purely reflexive way, Paul mentions the Spirit alongside the Father and Son in a position of complete equality.  Looking for a way to convince the Corinthians to all just get along, he exhorts them to mirror the plurality and unity that he can just presume they all know the Three Divine Persons enjoy! 

In other words, the understanding that the Divine Identity included Father, Son, and Spirit was so well-established by the time Paul writes, that he can simply use it as an indisputable fact for a totally different argument.

The Trinity wasn’t invented at Nicea.  It wasn’t invented by second- or third-generation Christians.  It wasn’t invented by the writers of the New Testament.  No, the Trinity, at least incipiently, is so thoroughly woven into the earliest writings of the New Testament that it seems to have been part of the early church’s belief right from the beginning.

I would love to hear what you think about this or any other blog!  You can leave your comments or questions on the “Contact E.J.” Page of the Raising Jesus website.  Also, please “Like” our Facebook page, subscribe to our YouTube channel, and keep telling your friends about us.  Thank you!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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