In this blog, we tackle a question starkly stated: Is Christianity a monotheistic or polytheistic religion?
To answer this question, we traverse the paths of early, then medieval church history – and finally back to the scriptures themselves.
Early Church History
In 325 AD, the first Roman emperor convert to Christianity convened a session of clerics to address a seemingly simple question: What is the relationship of God the Father to God the Son to the God the Holy Spirit?
And beneath is an underlying question: Is Christianity a religion of one God or multiple Gods?
These were questions about what most Catholics and Protestants today consider as the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s a formulation that we know as the Nicene Creed.
The pivot point for the creed was this more seemingly innocuous but more pointed question: Is the Son to be considered as being of same substance versus a similar substance with the Father?
In one of its common incarnations, the Nicene Creed today reads roughly as follows:
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, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Never mind that this is not the creed adopted by the 325 Council of Nicaea; the current form is modeled on some fine-tuning at the First Council of Constantinople of 381.
This conclusion was not easily determined – but it was essentially pre-determined. The Council of Nicaea was convened and presided over by the Roman Emperor Constantine. The first formulation proposed by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, was based on a Palestinian confession and represented an attempt by Eusebius to evade the central issue.
The Emperor then intervened, stating that the proposal of Eusebius matched his own sentiments. He urged adoption but with “the insertion of the single word Consubstantial” (meaning of the same rather than similar substance with the Father).
Despite protests from a certain Arius from Alexandria (Egypt) and others that the term “of the same essence” was not to be found in any of the New Testament writings, the Emperor’s viewpoint (not surprisingly) prevailed. The Council ended by condemning Arius, authorizing his excommunication and degradation from the presbyterate of Alexandria. Constantine ordered Arius and three others of his supporters “to be arrested and banished to the most distant region possible.”
Constantine acted not on the basis of a deeply held theological conviction but for political reasons. The concept of a united God was most consistent with the imperial mandate of a united empire – coming just after Constantine had spent nearly two decades fighting off other claimants to take sole possession of the Roman throne.
In time, the emperor would have second thoughts, largely because the chief advocate of consubstantial, Athanasius of Alexandria, proved to be even more troublesome than Arius. Athanasius (who also gave us the books of the New Testament as now received) threatened to withhold shipment of grain from Alexandria. – breadbasket of the empire. Athanasius then experienced the pain of imperial exile (the first of five times).
The see-saw between the Arians and Nicenes would continue beyond Constantine to the conflicted reigns of his three younger sons. Following the return of a pagan emperor – Julian – control of the empire fell into the hands of Theodosius, a confirmed Nicene. The final victory of Nicaea was confirmed in 381 with the Council of Constantinople.
Postscript on Constantinian Household Holiness. While there are conflicting strands of thought about Constantine as ruler, converted Christian, and family man – one incident tells the story. The year after the Council of Nicaea, Constantine precipitated a household tragedy of his own making. He first murdered his eldest son Crispus and then boiled his wife Fausta in her bath (over an alleged affair between wife and stepson).
Fausta got one thing out of this. She assured the line of succession would be to her three natural sons – but with tragic results. The oldest would live to die in war with the youngest son. The youngest would then be displaced by a German officer who would then be overthrown by the middle son Constantius II. One bright light – Constantius was devoutly Arian – but to no avail within a generation.
But What Proof of Trinity?
The Council of Nicaea has served over nearly 1,700 years to buttress Catholic and Protestant notions of the Trinity – the notion of the Godhead as three in one. With the Son and Spirit consubstantial with the Father.
There have been two problems with this theological Trinitarian construct – both of which have to do with lack of scriptural authority. The first problem is that the term “trinity” is never once mentioned in the Bible. Simply stated, “trinity” is not a scriptural term; it’s an after-the-fact theological construct.
The second problem is that scripture has never even used even the looser term for trinity such as the concept of “three in one.” This has been an unresolved problem down through the centuries for the orthodox church.
This second problem was temporarily remedied in 1552 when I John 5-7-8 was amended to read as follows:
For there are three who bear witness in heaven: the Father, the word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one. (New King James Version)
The phrase in boldface type does not appear in any Greek manuscripts of the Bible before the 16th century. There is general agreement that this phrase was added by the Catholic theologian Erasmus in his 1552 version of a Greek New Testament. This terminology has since been removed in most modern translations of the New Testament. Note: the New King James Version remains true to its 1611 hoodwinked forebear but with a margin note acknowledging that the highlighted phrase is not to be found in earlier Alexandrian/Egyptian (NU) or Majority/Greek New Testament (M) texts.
Monotheistic or Polytheistic?
Three centuries after Constantine, a prophet by the name of Muhammad came out of the Arabian desert preaching the gospel of surrender – of Islam. Muhammad had close affinity for those of Christian persuasion – he and his first wife were married by the Christian bishop of Mecca.
But Muhammad had one significant problem with Christianity. He abandoned Arabian polytheism for the monotheism of Allah. He could accept the idea that Jesus was a divine prophet but not God. As reflected by writings in the Qur’an: “Praise be to Allah, Who begets no son, and has no partner in (His) dominion; nor (needs) He any to protect Him from humiliation: yes, magnify him for His greatness and glory.”
Of course, Muhammad would not be alone in this persuasion, For Judaism as well, the Nicene formulation amounts to idolatry – because it appears to contradict the Shema formulation of the Old Testament (or Hebrew Scriptures) that the “the Lord our God is one.”
For some, Nicaea could even be interpreted as violating the first of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Small wonder that this tenet of Christianity has served to drive a wedge between Christians and their Muslim as well as Jewish counterparts.
We’ll reserve our answer to the question of whether Christianity is monotheistic or polytheistic to the next installment of this jesustheheresy blog. And to get to this more definitive answer, we will need to step back further in time to the preserved writings of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament.
At this juncture, there are three initial conclusions that can be drawn from this review of early and medieval church history:
- The Nicene Trinitarian formulation of three-in-one, consubstantial with the Father may have served as good politics and as orthodox theology, but can not be explicitly scripturally grounded.
- Nicaea may also have been perceived as a marketable means by which Christianity could peddle itself as consistent with a monotheistic faith, but that subterfuge has been easily understood by Jew and Muslim alike.
- To retrieve an authentic Christianity, we need to go back to the boneyard of Nicaea – and start all over again. Confess the Nicene error, and move forward in the reality of Father, Son and Spirit as beings of similar but separate essence.
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