Christadelphians are generally very hostile to any belief in “the Trinity” and frequently have talks against it. These often start with crude representations of Trinitarian beliefs and state the illogical nature of them. Sometimes these claim Trinitarianism is the belief in three gods, a concept called Tritheism which Trinitarians reject. They will point out the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible and will claim the belief to be a denial Christ came in the flesh. In fact Trinitarians do not deny Jesus came in the flesh. They believe he was both “fully man” and “fully God.” The real difficulty is that this whole area of discussion is theologically complex and words used in dogmas such as the Trinity have specific theological meanings. Here I am sharing some simple thoughts for consideration.
The first point to note is that Christianity has a long history of division over questions about the nature of God, that of Christ and the relationship of the Holy Spirit. It should be noted that divisions over the nature of Christ and the atonement have also been a feature of the Christadelphian community too.
A common claim is that the belief came as a result of merging original Christianity with paganism. Many Christadelphian booklets will try and prove this by showing pictures of three headed Gods. Some claim a Roman Emperor, Constantine, brought it in at the Council of Nicaea. In fact the reality is far more complex. Whilst it is true that the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible, as a dogma it arose from a series of theological disputes over the nature of Christ and how they could be explained. For instance the setting of the Council of Nicaea was a disagreement over the pre-existence of Christ. Both sides (Athanasians and Arians) agreed he did, but differed on whether he had a beginning or not. Arians suggested because he was called “son of God” there must have been a time “when he was not.” Athanasians saw the word “son” as descriptive of a relationship, not a definition of origins. The idea of the Council was to reach a consensus in the newly adopted state religion.
The Council of Nicaea never created the Trinity, although it was a step towards it. The orthodox Catholic Church gradually defined their position with creeds (statements of faith) and debates for nearly 1000 years until they formed what today is called “the Trinity.” This was generally continued by the mainstream Protestant churches, although they do not have all elements in common with the Catholic Church today. The various theological disagreements are historically documented. Some of the dissenters from the orthodox positions have elements in common with the Christadelphians, although none is the same as the ideas expressed by John Thomas which he called “god manifestation” and which he wrote in a book called Phanerosis. The introduction defines some of the difficulties involved and suggests many have an inability to follow the high reasoning he had. And this needs noting. Although the complexity of the trinity is often stated to be a sign of its flawed nature, Christadelphian attempts to come up with a consistent theology have been equally complex.
Throughout history there have been many dissenters to the dogma of the Trinity, with many different explanations for the nature of Christ. Christadelphians have sometimes tried to draw links to these as their predecessors. They have even compared themselves to the losing side at the council of Nicaea, although the Arians did not believe in the concept of God manifestation as defined by Christadelphians. They believed for example in the pre-existence of Christ which Christadelphians would reject. They also now sometimes call themselves Unitarians and compare themselves to the Socinians in Europe. This was specifically rejected by John Thomas in his magazine the “Herald of the Kingdom” (1853, p.150) where he wrote,
The readers of the Herald well know that its pages are never defaced by Socinianism or Universalism, which, like Calvinism and Arminianism, equally as absurd creeds, are removed from my faith as widely as the poles asunder.
It is also worth acknowledging that many mainstream Christians, and indeed Christadelphians, often do not fully understand their own official creeds and positions well. If asked to explain or define past a simple statement a huge number would have difficulty. It is one thing to say “Jesus is God” it is quite another to be able to explain what is meant by that. This may be partly why Christadelphians frequently misinterpret what Trinitarians believe. For instance some take the belief that “Jesus is God” to imply Trinitarians believe Jesus is the Father or that Trinitarians believe the Father died on the Cross. In fact in the full creedal sense every word used has a specifically defined meaning. Likewise it is one thing to say “Jesus is a Man” or a man who is a “god manifestation.” It is quite another to explain how a man can manifest God fully and be sinless whilst still being human.
In a debate scenario based upon Bible words so often both groups have a list of text passages. One set is about those passages which emphasise the humanity of Christ, the other set is about those passages which emphasise his divinity or manifestation of God. The reality is both sets are there and at its heart there is a paradox which has to be resolved and which is at the centre of the difficulty. It rests on the personality of Christ. On the one hand he is presented as a MAN who is like us in every respect, who has our nature and shares our temptations. On the other hand he is presented as being GOD in the flesh. If we focus on his humanity alone it is hard to explain his sinlessness, particularly in view of the fact that Christ defined sin as being at the thought level. If we focus on his divinity it can be seen as a denial of being human.
A big criticism levelled against the Trinity is that it is acclaimed to be a mystery. In fact what is at the very heart of this is the limitation of words. The same claim of not being capable of explanation incidentally can also be levelled against god manifestation. If Christ wasn’t indwelt by God through the Holy Spirit to overcome, how did he lead a perfect, sinless life? In traditional Christadelphian theology Christ has “sinful flesh” and has to first die for himself before he can save us. He overcomes through his knowledge of the Bible in his brain and must therefore learn in a way progressive to his needs. How exactly does all that happen? From personal experience we should know perfection doesn’t come that easily. Where would he have got the willpower from to do that? These kinds of questions led to a division in the early Christadelphians which was called “clean flesh.”
More to follow…