The Doctrine of the Trinity and Anti-Trinitarian Theologies:
Servetus, Milton, Newton
The Doctrine of the Trinity
The Arian Heresy
Anti-Trinitarianism Part I: Michael Servetus
Anti-Trinitarianism Part II: John Milton
Sir Isaac Newton
The Arian heresy -- or rejection of the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity -- is actually relatively uncommon among contemporary Christian denominations; to pick one particular national example, Post-Reformation England would tolerate a broad array of theological stances -- from the dour Calvinism of the early Puritans to the sunnier Arminianism of the Wesleyan Methodists -- but more or less drew the line at anti-Trinitarianism. Yet it is remarkable that some of England's greatest intellectuals -- including the epic poet John Milton and the father of modern physics Sir Isaac Newton -- would secretly author theological works reviving the old heresy of Arius in order to disprove the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. I propose -- after a brief examination of the standard doctrine of the Trinity as it is held in common by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans (among many others) -- to eludicte the theological underpinnings of the doctrine by examining the more marginal theologians -- all better known for other intellectual work -- who denied it. These include not only Milton and Newton, but the most notorious anti-Trinitarian figure of the sixteenth century, Michael Servetus. I hope by examining the theological objections to the doctrine of the Trinity, we may better understand the role that doctrine plays in less heterodox Christianity. [THESIS] In point of fact, the doctrine of the Trinity is something that a majority of mainstream Protestant sects hold in common, so in terms of its theology in the Reformation and beyond, it is clear that the doctrine of the Trinity is perhaps better examined not by those theologians who espoused it, but by those who denied it, so that we can see how objections to it reflect an emerging Enlightenment stance, a sort of Deism before the fact.
[INTRODUCTION]: The orthodox conception of the doctrine of the Trinity derives from the First Nicene Council, in which the Christian bishops were called together by the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, Constantine. The debates of the Nicene Council would establish the version of the doctrine of the Trinity which in the form of the Nicene Creed is still in liturgical use in the Roman Catholic church:
We believe (I believe) in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, and born of the Father before all ages. (God of God) light of light, true God of true God. Begotten not made, consubstantial to the Father, by whom all things were made.[footnoteRef:0] [0: Catholic Encyclopedia, "Nicene Creed." http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11049a.htm (accessed 21 March 2011).]
The principal disagreement at the Council of Nicea was over the terminology -- then using the Greek of the New Testament -- for the word here translated as "consubstantial." This represents the Greek "homoousia" which denotes the sameness of being or substance between God the Father and God the Son. This orthodox conception of the Trinity is frequently expressed as a set of almost mathematical equivalencies, where the three persons of the Trinity individually are each equivalent to God, but no one of those persons is equivalent to another -- while at the same time holding, with the opening words of the Nicene creed, with a fundamentally monotheistic faith. Each of the three persons is actually God: as Wayne Gruden puts it "When we speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together we are not speaking of any greater being than when we speak of the Father alone, the Son alone, or the Holy Spirit alone."[footnoteRef:1] The doctrine of the Trinity thus holds that, in Gruden's words, "the being of each Person is equal to the whole being of God."[footnoteRef:2] But it is this historical derivation of the doctrine from the Council of Nicaea that George Williams argues in The Radical Reformation that "the standard generic term for all those commonly called anti-Trinitarian in modern scholarly literature" would be more accurately defined as "anti-Nicene, for common to all sixteenth-century opponents of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity as three Persons in one Substance was their objection to the ultimately Greek philosophical terminology enforced by the authority of the Roman Empire and Constantine."[footnoteRef:3] [1: Gruden, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. (Zondervan, 1994), p. 252.] [2: Ibid., p. 255.] [3: Williams, George. The Radical Reformation. (Westminster, 1962) p.319.]
The doctrine is not stated directly in scripture but can be assumed logically from various sources in the New Testament; for example, Matthew 28:19 enjoins "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." Given the heavy Pauline influence on mainstream Christianity in the years between Christ's actual ministry and the Council of Nicea, it is easy to see why this particular passage (with its emphasis on the conversion of the gentiles) would prove to be so doctrinally evocative. But the Trinity is derived scripturally from the fact that the New Testament will continue to refer to God the Father in the manner of the Old Testament, while at the same time also referring to Jesus as God (as in "our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ," Titus 2:13) and referring to the Holy Spirit as God (as when Saint Peter rebukes Ananias in Acts 5:3-5, equating his crime with lying to the Holy Spirit and therefore lying "before God"). To a certain degree, the Old Testament offers some confirmation of this conception of God as more than one person, as one of the Hebrew words used to refer to God in the Old Testament, "elohim," is itself a Hebrew plural. Of course the New Testament offers plenty of instances in which the Son and the Father are obviously clear and distinct persons (e.g. John 3:16) and the preponderance of these is taken to be a way of distinguishing between these different aspects of the divine. Yet ultimately, as Grudem notes, the Trinity serves as a kind of focus for mystical contemplation:
But if each person is fully God and has all of God's being, then we also should not think that the personal distinctions are any kind of additional attributes added on to the being of God . . . Rather, each person of the Trinity has all of the attributes of God, and no one Person has any attributes that are not possessed by the others. On the other hand, we must say that the Persons are real, that they are not just different ways of looking at the one being of God...the only way it seems possible to do this is to say that the distinction between the persons is not a difference of 'being' but a difference of 'relationships.' This is something far removed from our human experience, where every different human 'person' is a different being as well. Somehow God's being is so much greater than ours that within his one undivided being there can be an unfolding into interpersonal relationships, so that there can be three distinct persons.[footnoteRef:4] [4: Grudem, 253-4.]
Gruden might have summarized this more succinctly with Tertullian's credo quia absurdum, but the point is clear. The triune nature of the Trinity is, in itself, a sort of religious mystery.
The initial case against the Trinity was stated at the Council of Nicea by Arius, who held that if God the Father begat God the Son, then the status of being "begotten" automatically entailed a time before existence, and therefore the Son was created ex-nihilo. The introduction of the concept of "homoousia" was intended to cover the various stances held by Arius and his followers, which concluded therefore that the Son was in some way of a different or lesser substance than the Father as a result. But it is important to note the implications of the doctrine of the Trinity upon the rest of Christian doctrine. If God the Father demands the sacrifice of his own Son to redeem mankind from sin, then a strict Arian conception -- in which God the Father is also greater than and somehow different ontologically from the Son -- makes the Crucifixion seem like the central event in a rather crude human-sacrifice cult, and defines God as a sort of tyrant. This seems like the central reason why mainstream Christianity would hold to the doctrine of the Trinity without serious challenge until the Reformation. The major theologians of the Reformation, as noted, were all firmly Trinitarian. To find a theologian whose views are willing to deny the doctrine of the Trinity, we must turn to Michael Servetus. Servetus is famously conceived of in modernity as having been a sort of protomartyr to science (in the same vauge way as Giordano…