Yesterday in our after-breakfast Bible reading time my family and I finished reading the section on Arianism in Chapter 14, “God in Three Persons: The Trinity,” of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994). The previous day we’d read the part of the section which describes the Arian controversy, and yesterday we read the parts of the section which consider two related false doctrines (subordinationism and adoptionism) and give reasons why it is important to hold to the doctrine of the Trinity, the belief that God is one but exists as three persons–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, each of whom is fully God. We also read the short section in “God in Three Persons: The Trinity” on tritheism, the belief in three Gods. Here I’ll share from what we read yesterday except, because few people have held the view in the history of the church, what we read about tritheism.
While Arius held that Jesus Christ was created and not divine, subordinationism held that he was eternal and not divine. Origen, an early church father, advocated a form of subordinationism in order to protect the distinctness of the persons of the Godhead. However the rest of the church didn’t follow him and rejected his teaching at the Council of Nicea.
Grudem follows his consideration of subordination with a tribute to the role played in resisting Arianism by Athanasius. He was not an official participant in the Council of Nicea, but his writings on behalf of the Bishop of Alexandria, whose secretary he was, influenced the outcome. Although condemned at the Council of Nicea, the Arians didn’t give up and prolonged the controversy through much of the rest of the century. Athanasius devoted his life to teaching and writing against them and became a focal point of their attack, which included his being exiled five times. In the article on Athanasius in The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1974), Samuel J. Mikolaski quotes a G.L. Prestige as saying about Athanasius, “By his tenacity and vision in preaching one God and Saviour, he had preserved from disolution the unity and integrity of the Christian faith.”
Another false teaching related to Arianism, adoptionism, viewed Jesus Christ as an ordinary man until his baptism, when he was “adopted” by God as His “Son” and given supernatural powers. Adoptionism never became a movement like Arianism did, but from time to time there were people in the early church who held its views. Similarly there are people today who think of Jesus as a great man and empowered by God but deny his deity.
Grudem follows his consideration of adoptionism by observing that the controversy over Arianism was ended by the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381. The council reaffirmed the Nicene Creed and added a statement on the deity of the Holy Spirit, which had also come under attack. Here is the Nicene Creed in the revised form issued by the Council of Constantinople:
I believe in one God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets. And in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
The Importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity
Grudem gives six reasons why it is essential to hold to the full deity of the Son and the Holy Spirit:
1. If Jesus Christ was created and is not fully God, then it is questionable that he could bear the wrath of God against our sins.
2. If Jesus Christ was created and not fully God, then it is doubtful that we could trust him to save us completely.
3. If Jesus Christ was created and not fully God, then it would be idolatry to pray to or worship him.
4. If Jesus Christ was created and not fully God, then crediting salvation to him would be exalting the creature rather than the Creator.
5. If there is no Trinity, then there were no personal relationships within God before creation and it is hard to see how He could be genuinely personal.
6. If there is no perfect unity and plurality in God, then it is hard to see how there could be ultimate unity among the diverse elements of the universe.