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Reality or Illusion?
by WILLIAM WACHTEL
Historically, three great world religions have laid claim to monotheism as a central tenet of faith--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three of them hold in reverence the Biblical patriarch Abraham, to whom the One God of heaven and earth revealed Himself. To the Jews, Abraham is the ancestor from whom the Hebrew people sprang. They look back to him as "Father Abraham," the first Hebrew, the man whose dealings with the Lord God were the foundation of Israel's intense monotheism in the midst of pagan nations serving a multitude of idols.
To the Muslims, followers of Mohammed, Abraham is remembered and revered as the father of Ishmael and grandfather of Esau, ancestors of the Arabian people from whom Mohammed sprang and in whose land Islam began and is yet centered. Islam, too, with its worship of Allah alone, has always been strictly monotheistic. Christians also, with the Old Testament as an integral part of their Bible, regard Abraham with affection and respect, remembering that the very first verse of the New Testament speaks of Jesus Christ as "the son of Abraham." Christians, too, claim to worship only one God--the God of Abraham--the Lord God of heaven and earth.
Abraham, thus, is seen as the physical or spiritual ancestor of peoples who alone in a polytheistic or atheistic world teach the worship of the one and only God, whose name in Hebrew is represented by the Tetragrammaton, often rendered YHWH in English (the correct pronunciation of which is still in dispute). Abraham appears as a great beacon light in the history of mankind---one of those rare individuals who towers head and shoulders above the common lot, and from whose lifetime a new era can be dated
At this point, however, a strange anomaly appears in the history of monotheism. Judaism and Islam, though quite different religions, recognize each other as legitimately monotheistic, while at the same time both refuse to recognize Christianity as a champion of real monotheism. To them, Christianity is monotheistic in name only. While Christians would claim that "Christian monotheism" is a reality, Jews and Muslims would insist that it is only an illusion.
This insistence, of course, is based on the fact that since the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople (A.D. 325 and 381) the bulk of Christendom has viewed God as being three distinct persons or hypostases united in one substance. This teaching---the doctrine of the trinity--has stood as an offense to both Jews and Muslims, in their eyes a denial or a perversion of pure monotheism. Another body of believers--often obscure, derided, reviled, persecuted, and even martyred--have been those Christians unable to accept the trinitarian formulations or to find any justification for them in the Scriptures. These people, sometimes called unitarians, have considered themselves to be the guardians of true monotheism within Christianity.
I. THE DEVELOPMENT OF TRINITARIAN DOGMA
It is interesting that many scholars in recent times, within churches traditionally trinitarian, have been engaged in a lively debate over the legitimacy of the Nicene presuppositions and terminology, drawn as they were from Greek philosophy, and not from Hebraic or Judaic modes of thought. It is at least worthy of note that the Apostle Paul felt it essential to warn the young church to "beware... [of] philosophy" (Col. 2:8) and to avoid letting their minds be "corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ" (2 Cor. 11:3). Trinitarianism, with all its subtle terminology and hairsplitting distinctions, is anything but simple!
Although admitting that the trinity is not explicitly taught in the New Testament, theologians have sought to justify this doctrine by an appeal to the growing consciousness of the church, led by the Holy Spirit, enabling it to declare and define truth by means of so-called Ecumenical Councils long after the apostles had died. This is sometimes called the "catholic tradition," and it is quite distinct from basing doctrine on Scripture alone. Though sola scriptura was a watchword of the Reformation, it is clear that in many respects the Reformation churches were still highly indebted to the so-called Church Fathers and subsequent Greek and Latin theologians for their doctrinal understandings, rather than to the explicit statements of Scripture.
A good case, however, can be made for the thesis that the church, instead of going on to greater heights of understanding and faithfulness, experienced a drastic spiritual decline that in fact constituted an apostasy! Warnings of such a development seem not uncommon in the New Testament writings (Acts 20:29,30; 2 Tim. 3:1-7; 4:1-4; 2 Pet. 2:1-22; 1 John 2:18; Jude 4-19). The classic passage dealing with this is 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4, where Paul foretells “the apostasy”—as though it were to be a well known and outstanding departure from truth that would tremendously affect the church, leading ultimately to the appearing of one called the “Man of Lawlessness.” Some have applied this prophecy exclusively to times yet ahead of us, but the New Testament warnings seem to show that the developing apostasy was already apparent toward the end of the first century.