The Catholic Trinity: The Fortuitous Construction of the Tri-partate God
Christianity, proclaimed my friend Virgil in a recent conversation, is a crypto-pagan religion. How else, he asked, do you have a God that is made up of the happy triumvirate of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost? With a statement like that, the latent Catholic in me reared its ugly head. I countered with something about co-substantianbility and other baroque Catholic theological constructions. But Virigil had a point. The Trinity is a rather odd thing.
I'd grown up Catholic, having mouthed the Nicean creed, the official Christian orthodoxy, in hundreds of masses. But after leaving my Catholic high school, I actually read up on the history of the Catholic Church.To my surprise, I found that the Holy Trinity, as described in the Nicean creed, was not a foundational theological position of Jesus. It was a position that was literally voted in as orthodoxy in the 4th century, some 300 years after the Jesus died. It was the theological admission price for Christianity to become the official Roman state religion. The concept of the Catholic Trinity was politically-driven theology.
After almost 2000 years of Christianity as a monolithic institution, it's hard to imagine Christianity at it's inception. Christianity started off as a reformation in the state religion of Israel. At the turn of the 1st century, Israel was a little tin-pot state in the middle East, controlled by the Romans, but marked by a rather peculiar trait. It was the only state in the Roman world that had a monotheistic religion. All of Israel's neighbors, respectable polytheists to the man, regarded the Israelites as a bunch of crazy fanatics, especially with regard to the belief that they were the Chosen Ones of the One True God.
The major revolution brought about by the prophet Jesus, apart from the usual railing against the corruption and decadence, was that Jesus opened up membership of Judaism to people not of the Jewish faith. The traditional form of Judaism was matrilineal. You could only be a Jew if your mother was a Jew. But the radical move offered by the reformist Jesus was this: if you followed all the rules of Judaism (learn to eat kosher, cut off your foreskin) then you would be welcomed into the arms of the church of the One True God. Jesus opened up the only Monotheistic religion to the rest of the Roman world.
Of course, not 40 years after Jesus was crucified, the Jews rebelled (again) against their Roman overlords. This included the famous episode at Masala where 500 Jews committed mass suicide rather than be taken and enslaved by the Romans. The Roman general Tiberius razed Jerusalem to the ground in AD 77, and scattered the Jews across the face of the earth. This is known as the Diaspora. Ironically, in the standard biblical account, the Romans were seen as moderate masters but in fact, they were violent and brutal overlords. Pontius Pilate is described as a bureaucrat, not the genocidal general that appears in historical accounts of his exploits. No doubt, the nicer depiction of the Romans was a re-writing that occurred when the Romans later adopted Christianity as a state religion.
In the Diaspora, the only Monotheistic religion in the world split into two. The ancestor of modern Judaism focused inwards. It has been argued that one of the main reasons that the Jewish culture survived (unlike other cultures destroyed by the Romans) was the fact that they had a Monotheistic religion to hold their culture together. The other branch of the state religion of Israel became the Christians, those who believed in One True God but were willing to let Foreigners (Gentiles) join their ranks. This religion, which was to become known as Christianity, was poised to explode across the Roman Empire.
Christianity was a religion that uniquely appealed to slaves. The Roman Empire, civil though it might have been compared to its predecessors, was still a violent state that practiced wide-spread slavery. Slavery was woven into the fabric of the entire Greco-Roman world. The system of slavery in Rome was complex. Not all slaves did menial work. Some were highly educated who served as secretaries, teachers and administrators for influential Romans. But they were nonetheless slaves. Because of the Monotheism of Christianity, there were no castes in its organization. Even slaves were welcome to become Christians.
In Christianity, you were either with the One True God, or against the One True God. There were no shades of grey. There was no appealing to lesser gods, or intermediate gods, or foreign gods. Christianity opposed itself against the entire Pantheon of Pagan Gods. This newly minted Monotheistic religion inspired rare levels of fanaticism. This implied that everyone else, including slave-owning Roman masters, was going straight to hell. A beautiful solace for slaves who embraced the new Christian religion. Another appeal of Christianity was the prophesied Second Coming of Christ. This was meant to be an immanent event arriving very soon. A slave could easily imagine this as their way to personal liberty.
Christianity spread across the Roman world as an underground religion. It underwent various waves of persecution. But by the 4th century, Christianity had developed into an extensive organization, with bishops and synods and communities throughout the entire Roman empire. When Justinian was crowned Roman Emperor, he inherited a shaky Empire. In a clever power play, Justinian decided to make Christianity, still a persecuted minority, the new state religion. He could use this excuse to wreak religious violence on those who followed the old Roman religions.
Justinian could adopt this anarchic religion as the state religion, he needed to centralize it. He called the first ever Christian council, convened at Nicea where the assembled bishops argued over the official beliefs of Christianity. In the time-honored tradition of Pagan religions, the Nicean council officially declared the divinity of the founder. After all, the Romans had made Julius Caesar into a God, and the Egyptians had declared every Pharaoh a God. Of course, there was a strand of Christianity that wanted to keep the relationship between man and God pure – that Jesus was a man like the rest of them. But this position weakens the ecclesiastical and legal authority of the Church because then the words of later prophets would have equal weight to the founder. Thus God the Son, in the form of Jesus was voted into the official history of the Roman Catholic Church.
But there still remained one gaping hole in the theological link between the Jewish God of Israel and the new Monotheistic God of Christianity. If Jesus was divine, and the Christian bishops could draw on this divinity, then how could they connect their history with that of Jesus. The problem was that the greatest source of Christian theology was Paul, a Jew who was also a Roman citizen and former persecutor of the Christian sect. Paul experienced a conversion to Christianity totally independent of the other apostles of Jesus. Paul spent most of his life preaching amongst the non-Jews in the Roman world. It is no accident that a lot of Paul's writings in the New Testament argues about dropping all the traditional rules of the Jews for the foreigners. Things like circumcision, and the proscription against eating shellfish and pork. Paul was arguably the most important person in bringing Monotheism to the Roman world.
Paul, however, never actually met Jesus. This posed a problem for the later Christian bishops in designing a theology that gave them ecclesiastical authority through Jesus. So the early Christian bishops seized on yet another construction – the Holy Spirit. This was yet another divine aspect of God, completing the Trinity, which bestows divinity selectively on certain members of the Christian, thus maintaining a divine link between Jesus and the later Bishops without any direct link. The Holy Spirit by design acts intermittingly, because otherwise, any Christian could have access to it, and thus escape the authority of the centralized Catholic Church.
And thus, in the first ever general meeting of Christian bishops, the tripartate nature God was voted in as orthodoxy. That there was God the Father, the source of Monotheism, but also God the Son, the source of priestly authority, and also God the Holy Spirit, the source of lineal continuity. And it was a sign of the power of orthodoxy that after the meeting, the losers in the debate at the Council of Nicea were exiled and excommunicated from the Roman Empire.