For those Christian denominations that follow the liturgical calendar, the church year begins with the first Sunday in Advent, four Sundays before Christmas, and is divided into seasons. During the first half of the year, from Advent through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter, and concluding with the festival of Pentecost, scripture readings focus on the life of Jesus. The second half, between Pentecost and the beginning of Advent, emphasizes the ministry and teachings of Jesus. Trinity Sunday, which the Western Christian world just celebrated on May 22, and Christ the King Sunday, which will fall this year on November 20, are the pivot points between these two major divisions in the calendar.
The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the primary beliefs that distinguish Christianity from the other two major religions which are also “People of the Book” – Judaism and Islam. Members of these latter two, being strict monotheists, regard the concept of “God in three Persons” as incomprehensible. And indeed, many Christians have difficulty explaining just what the Trinity is and means. The historic formulation is “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (or Holy Spirit).” But it took several centuries for Christian leaders to arrive at a statement of belief that brought general agreement.
The two early statements of faith that are still used widely in Christian churches are the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. The former was produced by the Council of Nicaea, a meeting of the bishops of the church called by Emperor Constantine in 325 C.E. to standardize the wide variety of beliefs found in Christian churches of the day. In its original form this creed contained very brief statements about belief in God the Father/Creator and in the Holy Spirit, while expounding in considerable detail regarding God the Son and his relationship to God the Father. It concluded with an anathema against the Arians, who believed that Jesus as the son of God had been created by God, and who had ended up on the losing side in the struggle to define that relationship.
The origin of the Apostles’ Creed is less clear, though it is generally believed to have been in use as early as the late first or the second century. The first clear evidence of its text appears in a letter written by the Council of Milan in 390 C.E. It follows the same pattern of Trinitarian affirmation of belief as does the Nicene Creed, though in its present-day form it is shorter and less detailed than is the other.
The only passage in the Bible in which the Trinitarian formula explicitly appears is Matthew 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” This is part of what is known as the Great Commission, in which Jesus gives final instructions to his disciples just before his ascension into heaven. There is significant disagreement among scholars as to whether or not this passage was altered after the Council of Nicaea in order to conform to what had been decided there. Bishop Eusebius of Caeseria (263 C.E. – 339 C.E.) wrote the first histories of the Christian church, in which he quoted abundantly from the scriptures that he knew at the time. He quoted Matthew 28:19 several times, and each time he recorded it as saying simply “…baptizing them in my name.” This is certainly strong evidence for a later alteration.
A major disagreement arose between the Western and Eastern branches of the church when the Council of Toledo in Spain in 589 C.E. added the phrase “and the Son” to the third paragraph of the Nicene Creed. The description of the relationship of the three persons of the Trinity thus was changed to read, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The Latin word for “and the Son” is filioque, and the dispute became known as the filioque controversy. The Western churches accepted the change; the Eastern churches did not. The argument festered for nearly five hundred years, and ultimately was listed as one of the “official” causes of the Great Schism of 1054 C.E., which saw the separation of most of Christendom into Roman Catholicism in the West and Eastern Orthodoxy in the East.
In the midst of the Reformation spirit that permeated Europe in the sixteenth century, a few religious leaders openly rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Martin Cellarius published “On the Works of God,” the earliest known Unitarian book, in 1527. Michael Servetus followed four years later with “On the Errors of the Trinity,” in which he argued for a nontrinitarian Christology. Condemned for his views by both Protestants and Catholics, he was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1553 by the Protestant city council of Geneva, Switzerland. The ideas of these two and others persisted, however. In some ways they were reviving the thought of the Arians that had been suppressed after the Council of Nicaea twelve hundred years earlier. Today they are regarded as founders of the Unitarian Church, predecessor of the Unitarian-Universalist Association.
As the First Great Awakening swept through eighteenth century New England, a number of leading clergy spoke out against its excessive emotionalism and what they perceived as the failure of its revivals to produce long-lasting conversions. Boston minister Charles Chauncy and other Congregationalist leaders expanded their critique to include Biblically-based criticism of the Trinity and other orthodox doctrines. Though many Congregationalist parishes became Unitarian, it is important to note that at the time, Unitarianism was still considered to be a sect of Protestant Christianity. The movement inspired numerous luminaries, including John Adams, second President of the United States; Dorothea Dix, Superintendent of U.S. Army Nurses during the Civil War and tireless advocate for the humane treatment of mental patients; and Joseph Priestley, English clergyman and scientist best known for his study of the chemistry of gases.
Fortunately, arguments over the exact nature of the Trinity no longer lead to heresy trials and executions as they once did. Many Christian groups have come to a position similar to that which is expressed in the liturgy for Trinity Sunday in the 1995 Moravian Book of Worship: “Triune God, we acknowledge the profound mystery of your being, beyond our comprehension, Three in One, One in Three.” This is the best course, I believe – to acknowledge that we are human, with human limitations, and that some things are simply beyond our understanding. Then we can move away from dispute and join together in celebration.