What are the main criticisms of the Trinity Doctrine?

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As known, most discussions between the Christians and Muslims centered on the Trinity doctrine. The Muslim criticism was that the three hypostatizations of God in Christianity do not signify pure monotheism, and that Christians are wrong in their claim that Jesus is divine as one person of the Trinity. The doctrine of Trinity can be formulated as the following: “The Father is revealed in Christ through the Spirit.”1 According to Christian theologians, while three personifications of God appear in the New Testament as “the Father, the Son, and the Spirit”, they can be discerned in the Old Testament as “Wisdom, the Word of God, and the Spirit of God.”2 McGrath introduces the Word of God “as an entity with an existence independent of God, yet originating with God.”3 Likewise, Tertullian tried to explain the idea of one substance—three persons as “that the one God played three distinct yet related roles in the great drama of human redemption.”4 According to Tertullian, the Trinity signified three different persons in the same substance. He argued that “substance is what unites the three aspects of the economy of salvation; person is what distinguishes them.”5

Why do Christians need to comprehend the Godhead in the Trinitarian understanding? According to Christianity, the only way to know about God is to believe that He had communication through Christ with human beings. In other words, if God did not reveal Himself in Jesus, for Christians, people would not have known God. McGrath argued:

[Three hypostatizations of God] point to a pattern of divine activity and presence in and through creation, in which God is both immanent and transcendent. A purely Unitarian conception of God proved inadequate to contain this dynamic understanding of God. And it is this pattern of divine activity which is expressed in the doctrine of the Trinity.6

As it is seen, the Trinity finds its interpretation in peoples’ needs to realize an immanent and transcendent God. As Irenaeus, one of the cornerstones in Christian theology, stated: “he became a human being amongst human beings, capable of being seen and touched, to destroy death, bring life, and restore fellowship between God and humanity.”7

At this point, one may ask about God before Christ. Namely, if human beings can know about God only through the Trinitarian process, then how about the humanity who lived before Christ and who believed they had communication with God through revelation without physical contact? Gnostic ideas that, “the creator God [of the Old Testament] was quite distinct from (and inferior to) the redeemer God [of the New Testament]”8, can be thought as related to the above-mentioned question. Such a dualism brought forward by the Gnostic writers took a sharper version in Marcion of Sinope, a major 2nd century Christian theologian. Marcion, who was declared as a heretic, believed that the universe was created by an evil God, the God of the Old Testament. This creator God is totally different from the God of the New Testament who is the redeemer.9

Besides the already discussed belief that Jesus reveals God, Christianity underscores the other beliefs around Jesus’s personality. For example, Jesus Christ is the bearer of salvation is another central theme in Christology. This theme was used by Athanasius in the Arian controversy. Briefly, Athanasius argued that Jesus Christ was God because no creature could save another creature, but Jesus could redeem humanity.10 Another point Athanasius made was that Christians worship Jesus.11 If Jesus was a creature, Christians who worship Jesus must have been declared as guilty in their worships. On the other hand, how Arius understood and interpreted the relations between the Father and Son is of importance regarding the issue which is related to God’s attributes. In Arius’s thinking, “The father is regarded as existing before the Son.”12 Thus, Jesus is not eternal, but God is. Since Jesus is not eternal, he is not divine; namely, he is a creature. However, the Son who derives from God is not like the other creatures; he is at the elevated level. According to Arius, the term “the Son” employed in the verses must be taken metaphorically and not literally. As we see, Athanasius focuses on the Christian tradition regarding Jesus being a Savior to prove his divinity, whereas Arius follows philosophical intellect. Indeed, Arius has been criticized as being a scholar who employed Greek philosophy to explain the Person of Christ.

Christianity faced other controversies and heresies besides the Arian, which do not demand more extensive discussion here. However, it should be noted that the decisions made in the Council of Chalcedon in 451 drew the general frame of the Christian theology. The Council agreed that Christ,

1. Was truly God and truly human (this was refutation of Arians and Docetists),

2. Consisted of a reasonable soul and a body (the phrase “reasonable soul” was refutation of Apollinarians),

3. Was born of the Virgin Mary. So, the Virgin Mary was the mother of God (this was refutation of the Nestorians),

4. Was acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, change, division, or separation.13

Therefore, disagreements on God’s nature and the personality of Christ have been occurring not only between Christianity and Islam, but also within Christianity. The final statement of Christian theologians is the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three persons in one Godhead. Hence, this indicates more than one eternal being.

Questions

  1. What are the main criticisms of the Trinity Doctrine?

  2. How did the Christian theologians attempt to explain the Doctrine of Trinity?

  3. How different was Athanasius’s view from Arian’s in the understanding of Jesus’s personality?

  4. What are the 4 points that the Council of Chalcedon agree on regarding Jesus Christ?

1 Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: an Introduction, 3rd ed., (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001), 320.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 321.

5 Ibid., 324.

6 Ibid., 322-323.

7 Ibid., 323.

8 Ibid., 297-298.

9 Ibid., 323.

10 Ibid., 359.

11 Ibid., 360.

12 Ibid., 358.

13 William C. Placher,ed., Essentials of Christian Theology, (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 185.


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