The word “trinity” is formed by combining “tri”—meaning three—with “unity”. This blend simply means a unity of three. Other terms used to describe the same concept are trio or triunity. These terms can mean different things to different people as they are broad enough to cover a range of nuances.
Christians have used these terms at least since 170AD to succinctly describe the nature of God.1* Seventh-day Adventists employ these terms to describe their belief in one God who is a unity of three co-eternal Persons.
There are, however, those who challenge the official Seventh-day Adventist view on the Godhead. These challenges are usually based on two ideas. One is the belief that the Trinity is a pagan concept. The other is the belief that Adventist pioneers unanimously rejected the Trinity and the Church has wandered away from purity. Once these views are accepted, one is compelled to reject the triune view of the Godhead and forced to use Scripture to establish an alternative, Arian, view.
Named after Arius, a third-to-fourth century priest of Alexandria, Arianism holds that Jesus came into existence from the Father, instead of always existing as a distinct Person. This means that the Son exists because of the Father’s will and that only the Father is by nature immutable.2 Arians assert that inferior descriptions of Jesus in the New Testament during His time on earth refer to His very essence, rather than to the role He took on as the Son of Man. The largest Arian religion today is Islam, which has 1.8 billion adherents.3
Pagan ideas in Christianity
It is often touted that the idea of the trinity comes from Paganism because religions like Hinduism have three deities: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. But the Hindu writings, The Vedas, actually do not have a concept of a trinity. There are many traditions about the deities, but the most common one is that Brahman is the great singularity. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are expressions of him. Of these three, one generates another. Exactly who generates who depends on the text used.4
This in itself is no argument against the Trinity; in fact, it can be used to support it. It is a common tactic of Satan to counterfeit what is true with a false version. But is a trinitarian view of the Godhead really pagan?
Although some label the concept of the Trinity as pagan, one would be hard pressed to find it in ancient or modern pagan religions. Antitrinitarians usually select three of the many gods of a pagan religion, package them together to look like a trinity, and then create arguments as to why such a construct is unbiblical.
One such construct was created by 19th century minister and author Alexander Hislop, who stated, “The trinity got its start in Ancient Babylon with Nimrod—Tammuz—and Semiramis. Semiramis demanded worship for both her husband and her son as well as herself. She claimed that her son was both the father and the son. Yes, he was ‘god the father’ and ‘god the son’—The first divine incomprehensible trinity.”5 It’s worth noting that this apparent Babylonian trinity involves one deity deriving another deity.
The same is true of other constructs like the Egyptian Isis—Horus—Set or Isis—Horus—Osiris. Whichever combination of Egyptian gods one packages together as three, there is one common element—one deity giving birth to another. In each myth, Horus is an offspring.6 When antitrinitarians look for a trinity in Greek mythology it usually involves Apollo being part if it. Apollo is, of course, the son of Zeus.7 Whether one looks at Hindu, Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian or Greek gods, there is one common thread in all of them and that is that one deity proceeds from another.
Yet, when antitrinitarians are asked to define the biblical Godhead, they generally state that the Son was derived from the Father and that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son. They would be shocked to learn that this is actually a Catholic definition of the Trinity. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “It is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds.”8 Furthermore, Catholic Answers affirms the Council of Florence (1338-1445AD) definitions of God in that, “The Son ‘proceeds’ from the Father, and the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds from the Father and the Son.’”9 This Catholic definition of the Trinity is almost word-for-word with antitrinitarian definitions. It’s ironic that those who claim the Trinity to be a Catholic notion unknowingly hold a Catholic view of the Godhead!
As pointed out, if there is any pagan element in the concept of the Trinity, it is not the fact that there are three persons. In fact, father-mother-son triads or one deity deriving from another deity can be labelled as pagan. Some of our Adventist pioneers did hold views of Jesus as a derived subordinate deity. Those who came from the Christian Connexion movement had such views. However, they did not have a consistent view of the Godhead.
For example, Uriah Smith initially held that Christ was the “first created being”.10 He later changed his view.
James White wrote against a form of the Trinity, but also wrote in the Church’s official paper, “The S.D. Adventists hold the divinity of Christ so nearly with the trinitarian, that we apprehend no trial here.”11
An analysis of comments by Adventist pioneers regarding what they labelled as “the Trinity” reveals that they were actually criticising views on God that the Adventist Church never held and does not hold today. One such heresy they attacked is what we would now label as modalism.12 [pullquote]
There certainly was no consensus on the Godhead in Adventism during its early years. This is why the prominent Adventist evangelist and missionary, DT Bourdeau wrote in 1890, “Although we claim to be believers in, and worshippers of, only one God, I have thought that there are as many gods among us as there are conceptions of the Deity.”13
God did, however, gradually steer our movement to a unified biblical view of one God in three Persons. By the end of the 19th century, Ellen White could not have been clearer when she distanced her description of Jesus from any pagan ideas of derivation: “In Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived. ‘He that hath the Son hath life.’ 1 John 5:12. The divinity of Christ is the believer’s assurance of eternal life” (DA 530).14
Antitrinitarians RA Underwood, ML Andreason and others openly changed their views on the Godhead.15 In 1913, Review and Herald editor FM Wilcox wrote that “Seventh-day Adventists believe, 1. In the divine Trinity. This Trinity consists of the eternal Father, . . . the Lord Jesus Christ, . . . [and] the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead.”16
The most powerful argument for a Triune God is the apostle John’s description of Him: “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8 NKJV). And, “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him” (1 John 4:16 NKJV). Love is relational. There has never been a situation where God has not been in relationship. We see this description of the nature of God as the centre of Ellen White’s writings. The biblical view of God is not a singularity from which is derived other deities. Rather, God is an eternal symphony of love. The Triune God has power in mutuality and oneness, not in an existential hierarchy. It is in His very nature to seek to have us in that circle of love. This is the essence of the gospel. By beholding such a God, we move from selfishness to other-centredness as we become more and more like Him in character.
Emanuel Millen is pastor of Yarra Valley Church, Victoria.