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THE ORIGIN AND PROGRESS OF THE TRINITARIAN DOCTRINE,
AND THE CAUSES OF ITS CONTINUANCE.
If we place any dependence upon ecclesiastical history from the time of the Apostles for two or three centuries, (and it should be remembered, that all the ancient ecclesiastical historians were considered orthodox, we must say, with the learned Professor Norton, “ we can trace the history of this doctrine, and discover its source, not in the Christian revelation, but in the Platonic philosophy; which was the prevailing philosophy during the first ages after the introduction of Christianity, and of which all the more eminent Christian writers, the fathers, as they are called, were in a greater or less degree disciples. They, as others have often done, blended their philosophy and their religion into one complex, heterogeneous system; and taught the doctrines of the former, as those of the latter. In this manner they introduced errors into the popular faith.” “It is an old complaint of learned men,” says Mosheim, " that the fathers or teachers of the ancient Church were too much inclined to the philosophy of Plato, and rashly confounded what was taught by that philosopher, with the doctrines of Christ our Saviour ; in consequence of which, the religion of heaven was greatly corrupted, and the truth much obscured.”
“ Few of the learned are so unacquainted with ecclesiastical history as to be ignorant what a great number of errors and most preposterous opinions flowed in from this impure [unscriptural] source.” And, no doubt, one of the most erroneous and preposterous of these opinions was the strange doctrine of the Trinity. Plato was the authority relied on by some of the earliest Trinitarian fathers. Clement of Alexandria, one of the early Platonizing fathers, endeavors to show, that the doctrine was taught by that philosopher. He observes, that, in one of the epistles attributed to Plato, mention is made of a second and third principle, besides “ the King of all ; by which he can understand nothing to be meant, but the sacred Trinity; the third principle being the Holy Spirit, and the second principle being the Son, by whom all things were created, according to the will of the Father.” Eusebius states, that Constantine, in an oration to the assembly of saints,
eulogized Plato as teaching conformably to the truth; that there is a first God, the Father, and a second God, the Logos, or Son." And Augustine, in his Confessions, states, that he found the doctrine concerning the Logos in a Latin translation of some Platonic writings. Basnage says, “ Christianity, in its triumph, has often reflected honor on the Platonists; and as the Christians took some pride in finding the Trinity taught by a philosopher, so the Platonists were proud in their turn, to see the Christians adopt their principles.” Petavius, in his Theologica Dogmata, (Lib. 1, Cap. 3, de Trinitate,) gives a full
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account of the Platonic notions concerning the Trinity, and states, “in what manner this doctrine was conceived of by some of the ancients, and how the fiction of Plato concerning the Trinity was gradually introduced into Christianity, by those of the Platonists, who had become converts to our religion, or by others, who had been in any way indoctrinated in the Platonic philosophy.”
That the doctrine of a trinity was embraced in the philosophy taught by Plato and Philo cannot be doubted ; and it is also evident, that the early Christian fathers, when they became converts to Christianity, adopted it, or amalgamated it into the Christian system. Authorities for this are very numerous; but it is not necessary (and it would take too much space) to insert them in this work. If any one wishes to see a full view of this subject, he may have recource to the “ Intellectual System” of the very learned, Orthodox Cudworth, where he can find, I think, more information concerning the origin of the Trinity, than in any other work. From this origin we will take a brief view of the progress of the doctrine.
It is not pretended, that the Pagan or Platonic trinity was altogether like the modern doctrine ; but only that it was the origin, the seed that produced it. Though the earliest fathers seemed to agree fully with the Platonists, yet others, with ecclesiastical councils, soon began to make alterations in the doctrine ; (I will not say improvements, for I think every alteration they made was a change from
bad to worse.) The Platonic philosophy established a trinity of three gods; a first god, a second god, and a third god ; not, however, all equal; for they considered the second and third much inferior to the first, or as only attributes of the first, as his wisdom, or power, &c. And we find nothing about the numerical union of the three, or of three equal persons in Deity, or of trinity in unity. But after a while they personified the Platonic Logos, or wisdom of God, and called it the Son; but they still made him subordinate to the Father. And the Nicene council attempted to go still further, and declared the Son to be consubstantial, of the same substance, with the Father, not that he was the same substance, that is, the supreme God; but that he was of him, and therefore could not be the same; for a person, who is of, or from, another, cannot be that other. Cain was of, or from, Adam, but he was not Adam. Eve was of, or from, the substance of Adam ; but she was not Adam. And they were not numerically one person or being. There was nothing but a specific or generic sameness between them ; there subsisted a union only in love, agreement, design, and interest. But this council did nothing towards deifying, or even personifying, the Holy Spirit. But afterwards, in A. D. 381, the Emperor Theodosius called another council to remedy this defect, and to anathematize Macedonius," who had denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit.” This council decreed, that the “Holy Ghost is the Lord and Giver of Life, proceeding from the Father, and with the Father and
Son to be worshipped and glorified.” This council did not expressly make the Holy Spirit equal with the Father, but implicitly the contrary ; because they say, it“ proceeded from the Father," therefore could not be equal with him. Indeed, the perfect equality both of the Holy Spirit and of the Son with the Father was not expressly declared, or established by any ecclesiastical council, for some centuries afterwards. But when it came to be generally received, when it was determined, that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, each of them, was God, was Lord, was almighty, was supreme, self-existent, and independent, it seemed to be a matter of necessity, that there must be three equal, supreme Gods; the Bible, and all nature to the contrary notwithstanding! To remedy this difficulty, the Trinity was so amended, as to make it a trinity of persons numerically the same, or having all one and the same singular existent being. And this was the last, finishing, important stroke to the trinitarian fabrication. The learned Cudworth, when considering the different kinds of trinitarian doctrines, observes, “ that not a few of those ancient fathers, who were therefore reputed Orthodox, because they zealously opposed Arianism, namely, Gregory, Nyssen, Cyril of Alexandria, and others, entertained the opinion, that the three persons in the Trinity were three distinct individuals, like three individual men, Thomas, Peter, and John;” and remarks, that “some would think, that the ancient and genuine Platonic trinity, taken with all its faults, is to be preferred before