The debate over the Trinity started relatively late in Christian history. It was not until the fourth century that many theologians and bishops began to argue over the identity of Christ. Many, who would not believe in the deity of Christ were burned as heretics and their souls damned by the Church. Even today those who deny the Trinity are considered heretical or involved in a cult. Many times they are told that they are not even saved because they deny the deity of Christ. It is no wonder that with so much social persecution very few people actually take the time to consider the doctrine of the Trinity and the implications that it carries.
Before looking to deeply into the Trinity it is crucial that we know what is implied when we use the term in Christian circles. Keep in mind that even today, just as in its formative years, there is much disagreement about the exact way that God manifests Himself, but here is the “official” Church position on the nature of God:
God is one “essence” who manifests Himself as three “persons”: The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost. These three beings are all co-eternal, co-equal, and incomprehensible. They are all God and yet there are not three Gods but one God.
In 325 A.D. Constantine, the emperor of Rome called together a council so as to decide, once and for all, the identity of Christ. He saw that his kingdom was being torn apart by this issue, and he was attempting to bring some agreement and peace within the Christian faith as he was now beginning to adhere to it and get his empire to do the same. Little did he understand the importance of doctrine and just how much it would mean to these men that Scripture not be compromised for the sake of agreement.
The bishops were very torn regarding the identity of Christ and were essentially split into two groups. There were those who believed Jesus to be God (and relied mostly on confusing logic, supported by very little scripture) and those who believed Jesus to be the begotten Son of God, our divine Savior. The first group wanted to go so far as to say that Jesus was God but the latter felt there was simply not enough compelling biblical evidence to dictate such a belief.
It was Constantine who finally decided the issue by trying to help both sides come to a agreement. The non-biblical term he used was homoousia, which is a Greek term that means “of the same substance.” In this way those who wanted to see Jesus as God could be satisfied by interpreting this idea to mean that he was God and those who wanted to see Jesus as begotten from God could interpret this to mean that he was born of God, and as such, shared many of the same likenesses of God but was not God Himself.
This compromise, however, would lead into later doctrines with devastating implications to the Christian faith, and would give Athanasius, a than zealot priest, the room he needed to begin to promote his own agenda. In fact it was Athanasius who was primarily responsible for promoting the idea of the Trinity and enforcing it with violence, threats, and blatant disregard for his peers. He himself was a man with a violent temper, and no tolerance for those who disagreed with him, including the emperor himself. When Bishop Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria died he was quick to move in and claim the position for himself. Alexandria, originally founded by Alexander the Great, was a powerhouse in the Roman Empire. It was a city of great political influence, and great economical status. The Bishop of Alexandria was considered by many to be the most powerful of all the bishops.
Athanasius’ career is plagued by accusations of excessive force and violence, even against the clergy. He was brought before the councils and the emperor on several occasions for charges of destroying sacred church objects, burning down the houses of rival priests, and brutalizing priests. He often had his opponents excommunicated and anathematized, beaten and intimidated, kidnapped, imprisoned, and exiled. He was charged with an assortment of crimes, including bribery, theft, extortion, sacrilege, treason, and murder, and he was exiled no less than five times.  Yet even in his exile he continued to work tirelessly in order to secure himself a position within the church so that he could continue to promote his doctrine.
His own view of Christ is so skewed and pitiful that it is a shame we now consider it to be “mainstream” and don’t even bat an eye whenever someone says that Jesus is God. His views on Jesus were extreme, and unbiblical, yet he was able to defend everything simply by saying that it was a matter “beyond simple human understanding!”  Many, many men fought against Athanasius and his interpretation of the Nicene Council, and the ideas that were agreed upon at Nicea were overturned several times there after but Athanasius continued to cling to them and promote them throughout the Roman Empire.
Understanding all of the implications during this time will help to paint a picture of why Christians now believe the way they do about God. It is important to see that the doctrine of the Trinity was not simply something that was accepted right away, and many people were persecuted for maintaining even the slightest disagreement. It was only through much force, fear, and political influence that the doctrine of the Trinity has become “Orthodox.” I urge you in your own walk to seek out the history of this doctrine, for I believe you too will find it to be quite different than the picture that is portrayed today in which men like Athanasius have now become “heroes of the faith” when they are in fact villains. One of the best historical books we know of on this subject is When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome.
1. When Jesus Became God Richard Rubenstein, pp 6 Back to top
2. Ibid, pp 118-119. Back to top