It is widely believed–even among Christians and some of their scholars–that the Catholic Church established its official doctrine of the Trinity at its Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. But this is incorrect. The traditional doctrine of the Trinity as stated in English—that God is one essence existing as three co-equal and co-eternal Persons: the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit—was unknown then and for decades later. Although the Nicene Council did not provide minutes of its meetings, there is no evidence that it ever used the word “trinity,” which does not appear in the Bible, or even discussed the nature of “the (Holy) Spirit,” concerning which prior Christians had always held many varying views.
The main purpose of the Council of Nicaea was to resolve a debate within the Catholic Church which was threatening the peace of the Roman Empire. It was whether Jesus is fully God or essentially subordinate to God the Father, thus not equal to the Father in essence. It is quite clear in the writings of the church fathers of the second and third centuries, who were called “apologists,” that they subscribed to the belief that Jesus was God/god/deity yet essentially subordinate to the Father. Thus, they could call the Father “God Almighty,” yet refrain from doing the same regarding Jesus. I call this “big God and little god.” Origen even called Jesus a “second god.”
The Council of Nicaea produced a “Nicene Creed.” It has been superseded in the history of Christianity only by “the Apostles Creed.” The primary thrust of the Nicene Creed is that Jesus is “very God of very God,” which means “fully God of fully God.” This terminology was borrowed from Greek philosophy. It means Jesus is equal to the Father in essence. And the Creed only says concerning the Holy Spirit, “We believe … in the Holy Spirit.”
The standard text on the history of this debate in fourth century about the identity of Jesus and the church’s doctrine of the Trinity is Trinitarian R. P. C. Hanson’s magisterial book entitled The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381 (1988, 953 pp.).
The main reason people think the doctrine of the Trinity is in the Nicene Creed of AD 325 is that in many churches, including large church denominations such as the Anglican/Episcopal Church, the creed created at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381 is read in these churches during many of their Sunday morning worship services, and it sometimes is represented wrongly as being the Nicene Creed. In fact, this Creed of Constantinople is the Nicene Creed altered and expanded to include the doctrine of the Trinity even though it does not use the term “trinity” which is obviously because it is not in the Bible.
The Creed of Constantinople embellishes and thereby expands the Nicene Creed. Since it does not eliminate anything from the Nicene Creed, it includes that Jesus is “very God of very God.” The most prominent addition regards the Holy Spirit. Whereas the Nicene Creed only says of the Holy Spirit, “We believe . . . in the Holy Ghost,” the Creed of Constantinople elaborates this prepositional phrase by saying, “We believe . . . in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the prophets.” Trinitarians claim this statement affirms their doctrine.
The Trinitarian addition in the Creed of Constantinople that is not in the Nicene Creed is based on the formulations worked out during the 370s in the writings of “the three Cappadocians,” who were theologians. They were Basil the Great, his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus.
The following statements by R. P. C. Hanson reveal that the doctrine of the Trinity, made official by the Catholic Church at the Council of Constantinople, was a substantial change in the Christian doctrine of God that had preceded it:
“Very few Western bishops took the trouble to attend the Council [of Nicaea]. The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church” (p. 170).
“Turtullian may well have supplied the West with its Trinitarian vocabulary; he certainly did not supply the East with its Trinitarian theology” (p. 184). Turtullian’s trinity doctrine differed from the later, official, Trinity doctrine.”When we examine the creeds and confessions of faith which were so plentifully produced between the years 325 and 360, we gain the overwhelming impression that no school of thought during that period was particularly interested in the Holy Spirit” (p. 741).
“Gregory of Nyssa is to be sharply distinguished from the other two Cappadocian theologians in that he devised a doctrinal, indeed a theological, system more coherent and more elaborate than any the other two ever produced. There can be no doubt about his debt to Platonic philosophy” (p. 719).
“The three Cappadocian theologians may be said to have shifted the emphasis and to some extent the ground in the great debate which resulted in the formulation of the classic doctrine of the Trinity . . . partly because the question of the status of the Holy Spirit came to the fore in their time as it had not before” (p. 730).
“They elaborated a new vocabulary for expressing a Trinitarian doctrine of God and insisted that this was the only sound way . . . of expressing the ultimate burden of the witness of the Bible to his nature and character. . . . They used contemporary pagan philosophy with much greater confidence and freedom than any Christian writer before them” (p. 731).”The word ‘Trinity (trias) had long been in use (first by Theophilus of Antioch in the second half of the second century) and had been used to cover a multitude of conceptions” (p. 749).
“The Cappadocian Fathers made great and crucial contributions to the development of the full doctrine of the Holy Spirit” (p. 790).
“There is no doubt” that they were “introducing what must be called a change in doctrine. . . . I believe that it was necessary and right and marked the emergence of a genuinely Christian doctrine of God. But that it was a change can hardly be denied.” They felt “compelled to work with philosophical terms and concepts widely different from those of the Bible” (pp. 873, 875).
To see a list of titles of 130+ posts (2-3 pages) that are about Jesus not being God in the Bible, with a few about God not being a Trinity, at Kermit Zarley Blog click “Chistology” in the header bar. Most are condensations of my book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ. See my website servetustheevangelical.com, which is all about this book, with reviews, etc. Learn about my books and purchase them at kermitzarley.com. I was a Trinitarian for 22 years before reading myself out of it in the Bible.