Is the Trinity a Roman Catholic Doctrine?

This article is part 2 of a series on the doctrine of the Trinity, based on notes from a presentation made at a Seventh-day Adventist Church near me.

The worldview I was exposed to in my youth portrayed the Roman Catholic Church as the supreme antichristian power. To help a particular doctrine set gel, Rome took the blame for nearly everything wrong in Christianity. If something was “Catholic”, it was bad and to be avoided. Within that worldview, this quote was of particular concern:

The mystery of the trinity is the central doctrine of Catholic faith. Upon it are based all the other teachings of the church. Handbook for Today’s Catholic, p. 16

Compare this statement:

It is a matter of Catholic faith that Mary was a Virgin at the conception and at the birth of Christ … The doctrine of the virginal conception and birth of Christ is found in the Nicene Creed as well as in the oldest forms of the Apostles’ Creed.

There is truth, and a lot of it, in the Catholic church, though mixed with errors and the traditions of men. Roman Catholic doctrine confesses that God created the world, that man sinned, that the Father sent the Son into the world to redeem fallen man, they believe in Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, atoning death and resurrection, and that he is coming again, all of which are essential to Christian teaching.

The point is that all claims, even those from the Roman Catholic Church, must be tested and verified. In this section, I am hoping to provide a context for these claims through an examination of history.

The Council of Nicea AD 325 – setting some history straight

The council of Nicea was the first ecumenical council, and holds it’s place in church history for being the place where the Christological disputes between Arians (who believed that Jesus was created and therefore less than God) and Trinitarians were settled. At this council the doctrine of the Trinity was made into an official church statement. This does not prove that this was the origin of the teaching however, as it can be traced back to the New Testament and apostolic fathers.

Liberal historians and Jehovah’s Witnesses have spun a particular view this council which I believe is inaccurate. Dan Brown’s book, The DaVinci Code, is the current lens with which our generation uses to form its opinions of this period of the early Christian Church.

Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet…a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal…. Jesus’ establishment as ‘the Son of God’ was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea…. By officially endorsing Jesus as the Son of God, Constantine turned Jesus into a deity who existed beyond the scope of the human world, an entity whose power was unchallengeable (p. 233).

Constantine upgraded Jesus’ status almost four centuries after Jesus’ death…. Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike … (p. 234).

Establishing Christ’s divinity was critical to the further unification of the Roman empire and to the new Vatican power base….

 Facts of History, Council of Nicaea AD 325

  • Conducted in Greek (not Latin, the language of the Roman Church)
  • Presided over by the Eastern Church, nearly 2000 kilometres east of Rome.
  • Pope Sylvester was absent. Of the 318 bishops present, all were from the eastern Greek churches except five or six from the western church, and only two presbyters from Rome. See the Catholic Encyclopedia.
  • Constantine was not a Pope, nor a bishop, but an emperor of the Roman Empire
  • Constantine convened this council, but did not engage in the Christological disputes, as he was unqualified, neither did he persuade the bishops in their conclusions, nor vote.
  • Church historian Eusebius records that many of the bishops who attended this council bore the marks of persecution on their faces. It was held only fourteen years after the Edict of Toleration in 313 AD, marking the end of Roman persecution.
  • Canon #6 of the council shows that the church of Rome was a peer, not an acknowledged universal head of the church. The Western Church (Rome) was subject to the councils and authority of the Eastern church.
  • Constantine’s baptism was performed by his Arian bishop, Eusebius of Nicomedia.

Contrary to popular misconception, Constantine did not have a vote, nor did he participate in the arguments for or against the Trinity. After the council of Nicaea, Constantine converted to Arianism. Soon after, anyone who opposed the Arian doctrine was exiled. … It is commonly taught that Constantine instituted the Trinity doctrine into the church. History reveals that the opposite is true. Constantine was baptized as an Arian. The Arians were anti-Trinitarians. The change in the church was not as the result of the Council of Nicaea. At the council, the historic position of the church was affirmed and written into a creed. It was after this council that historic Christianity was exiled and replaced with the Arian heresy. (Heresies and Heretics in the Early Church, p. 5, by Eddie Snipes)

Many Christians are unaware of the fact that the Papacy did not achieve ascendancy until the fifth or sixth centuries, and even then did not wield full control of the churches in the west. We now refer to this as the Roman Catholic Church. In later centuries they would claim to be the original and universally acknowledged head of the Christian Church. Many of her claims serve as propaganda to teach their version of history.

The Eastern Church is older, and held sway in Christianity during the first four centuries. It was geographically based in the lands where the apostles taught, such as Asia Minor, where the Seven Churches of the Revelation were. The Eastern bishops had power to depose Popes, and did so on occasion.

Modern scholarship has discovered that the Eastern Christianity extended east to India, China and Japan. We now call this tradition the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Eastern Church was greatly diminished by Islamic invaders and other forces.

The Eastern Church, the Trinity, and the Canon 

Athanasius of Alexandria was a bishop of the Eastern church who championed the trinitarian cause in the fourth century. He is also known among Protestants as “father of the canon” because he was the first person to list and approve the 27 books of the New Testament Canon that we use today.

St. Athanasius of Alexandria completed the formation of the canon of the New Testament. In 325, the Council of Nicea instructed the Bishop of Alexandria to send an annual Festal Letter to the other bishops informing them of the date of Pascha, the annual celebration of the Resurrection of Christ.
In 379, St. Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria included a list of the books which he considered worthy of inclusion in the New Testament in his 39th Festal Letter. His prestige was so great that the rest of the Church adopted his list of canonical books at the Council of Carthage in 419. – The Historic Church, An Orthodox View of Christian History by Archpriest John W. Morris.

Compare this history with the claims of Rome:

When were all these writings put together? The Catholic Church put all of them in one book between the years 350 and 405. – A Catechism for Adults, p. 10

Indeed, when you accept the Bible as the Word of God, you are obliged to receive it on the authority of the Catholic Church, who was the sole Guardian of the Scriptures for fifteen hundred years. – The Faith of Our Fathers, p. 68

Beware of calibrating your sights by the claims of Rome. For centuries, she has challenged Protestants and other Christians with her professions of apostolic church authority, using as proof the trinity, the Canon of Scripture, and the Christian practice of gathering for worship on the first day of the week. These important contributions to Christian thought and tradition were in fact established by the early Eastern church, who until today reject the primacy of the Roman Bishop and oppose the Papal system of church structure.

Adventists have tended to view the early church with suspicion. Yet Protestants trust it with the very lifeblood of the church. And, the men who defined our Christian Canon, are the same ones that defended the full divinity of Jesus. We ought to pause before we ditch everything that seems to be linked to church tradition. Without it, a shadow of doubt is cast on the authority and authenticity of the New Testament Scriptures, and we find ourselves cut off from a crucial part of the leading of God through history.

Conclusion

The doctrine of the Trinity was formulated in order to protect the Christian understanding of God. Arianism was the new doctrine that was rejected.

The Trinity was introduced prior to the creation of the Roman Catholic Church or the ascendency of the Roman church, in Asia Minor, by the Eastern church. While it was adopted by the Roman church, along with other doctrines from the Eastern church, it does not find its genesis in the western Roman church but in the eastern Apostolic church.

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