Philosophy in Christianity – Welcome Addition or Intrusion of Worldly Reasoning? – The Trinity’s Philosophical Basis

This article discusses the controversy over philosophy in Christianity. Remember the point of this website is to see how different doctrines developed over time, and how they compare to original Christianity in order to understand how we got so many divisions and what we must do to restore the church. This article will primarily look at how philosophy, with controversy, became part of Christianity.  It will introduce the problems that the introduction of philosophy and its methods brought into the faith and how including philosophical methods allowed for doctrines to be developed outside of pure scripture.  Later articles will discuss more how these concepts align with the tradition of the apostles in original Christianity.

First, I want to look at what some systematic theologians have commented about philosophy or how they used it in their works.

Grudem defines philosophical theology as “studying theological topics largely without the use of the Bible, but using the tools and methods of philosophical reasoning and what can be known about God from observing the universe”[1] Grudem then puts philosophy in the category of extra-biblical reasoning. Remember extrabiblical reasoning is the practice of using thinking and or terms outside of the bible to develop Christian doctrine. Grudem acknowledges that there will be some consideration of philosophy at points in his work.

One point that theologians make also is that God reveals his truth in his creation.  Some of the arguments they make are presented from examples and other sources outside scripture.

Theissen contrasts theology and philosophy by saying that theology has a “solid objective basis”, but philosophy “rests merely upon the assumptions and speculations of the philosopher.” Yet they both are seeking the same thing, a way of explaining everything, a comprehensive worldview. He goes further to say “philosophy has definite value for the theologian.” He adds that philosophy can support the Christian position, argue for the existence of God and other things in the spiritual plane. But, most of all, philosophy does not have a Genesis story, and a salvation story so, according to Theissen, the theologian is drawn to God’s revelation in Scripture. Theissen says that philosophy will never bring someone to Christ.[2]

Paul Tillich was a Christian philosopher and Lutheran theologian and considered one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. As far as Scripture is concerned Tillich wrote that “Theology moves back and forth between two poles, the eternal truth of its foundation and the temporal situation in which the eternal truth must be received. Not many theological systems have been able to balance these two demands perfectly.  Most of them either sacrifice elements of the truth or not able to speak to the situation.… They confuse eternal truth with the temporal expression of this truth. This is evident in European theological orthodoxy, which in America is known as fundamentalism. When fundamentalism is combined with an anti-theological bias, as it is, for instance, in its biblistic – evangelical form, the theological truth of yesterday is defended as an unchangeable message against the theological truth of today and tomorrow.” [3]

Notice that there are no scriptures in Tillich’s comments. I have Tillich’s three-volume set named Systematic Theology. The first thing I noticed when glancing through it is there are, relatively speaking, very few Scripture references. What I do see is about 900 pages of theological philosophy.

As an example, Tillich writes “Revelation is the manifestation of the mystery of being for the cognitive function of human reason. It mediates knowledge – a knowledge, however, which can be received only in a revelatory situation, through ecstasy and miracle. This correlation indicates a special character of the “knowledge of Revelation.”[4] These are the first three sentences of the section in Volume 1 entitled The Knowledge of Revelation. This section on revelation is three pages long and there is not a single biblical reference.

Tillich is obviously an extremely intelligent, and even popular theologian – philosopher. But he is an example, in my opinion, of philosophy run amok in Christian theology.  Everything I read of his is examining not Scripture but concepts from under the authoritative analysis of philosophical methods. What I see in his writing is that Scripture is not the authority, philosophy is.

From this, we see there are varying degrees of acceptance among these theologians from the stand that philosophy can really lead you away from scripture but has its uses to the full embracing of all things philosophical.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy the section on Christianity and Philosophy starts with this:

“In the history of Christian theology, philosophy has sometimes been seen as a natural complement to theological reflection, whereas at other times practitioners of the two disciplines have regarded each other as mortal enemies.”

Next, we will look at what some Christian historians recorded about the infusion of philosophy into Christianity.

The truth is that there has been a long-running controversy over the role of philosophy in Christianity. We’re talking all the way back to the second century. Before that, everything points to a strong rejection of philosophy in the first century of Christianity. But that didn’t last.  Frend in The Rise of Christianity categorizes a changeover at the end of the sub-apostolic period as one from detesting philosophy to one embracing it as a weapon. He writes that in the days of the original apostles, Jews and Christians associated philosophies with pagan morality and refers to this verse.

Be careful that you don’t let anyone rob you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the elements of the world, and not after Christ. (Col 2:8 WEB)

In Colossians (2:8) Paul associated philosophy with “empty deceit, according to human tradition,” to be contrasted with the way of Christ.

But I am afraid that somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve in his craftiness, so your minds might be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. (2Co 11:3 WEB)

In second Corinthians (11:3) we see Paul entreating the Corinthians not to let themselves be seduced “from the simplicity that is in Christ.” Frend notes that Paul writes nothing positive about the Stoics and Epicureans whom Paul met in Athens.  Frend continues that this attitude toward philosophy continues throughout the New Testament as does the church Fathers that came immediately after like I Clement and Polycarp.  Frend notes “that Christians could have anything in common with pagans and their ideas were abhorrent to Polykarp.[5]” Frend also acknowledges that there were succeeding early church fathers like Iraeneus that believed heretics derived many of their heresies from philosophy.

Williston Walker in The History Of The Christian Church doesn’t discuss this shift in attitude over philosophy but calls the period from 70 A.D. to 110 A.D. a period of Christianity that is “non-Pauline.” He says that not only is very little known about this time but is a period where Christian beliefs and practices were modified.[6]  This suggests that Christianity was being Hellenized but come short of saying it precisely. But the next historian we will look at does say just that.

Justo L Gonzales in The Story Of Christianity notes that there was a movement within Judaism at this time (sub-apostolic period) “to show the compatibility between the ancient faith in the best of Hellenistic culture.” He goes on to say that the Hebrew prophets preceded the Greek philosophers, and thus the Greek philosophers got their wisdom from the Hebrew prophets[7]. Remember that Christianity at this time, immediately after the apostles, was still considered a part of Judaism.  Gonzalez goes on to say that in this time frame Christians were finding two philosophical traditions attractive: Platonism and Stoicism.[8]

Philosophy does not seem to be embraced quickly in the early days of Christianity. Acknowledgments that the philosophy might possess truths and insights valuable for the deeper understanding of Scripture were always begrudging. Even at the end of the patristic period, John of Damascus (c. 750) wrote, “let us use whatever we can from the Greeks, for we received many things from the Greeks that will enable us to fight against the Greeks,”[9]

Thus, the inclusion of philosophy in Christian communication is given as a matter of necessity, namely, to be able to battle intellectually with multiple groups in society who were denigrating Christianity. (Just remember that just because something happened in Christian history does not make it right. “The end justifies the means” is not a verse from Scripture.)

Frend writes that from the outset the Christians were at a disadvantage. He writes that although Christians were articulate the Gnostics and other heretical groups were more capable intellectually and more in tune with the dialogue of the times.  Friend writes that Christianity at this time was “hardening into formal and legalistic tradition” which didn’t help its image. Orthodox Christianity appeared to outsiders as introspective, “frogs squatting around on marsh discussing who was the most sinful among them.” It was an intellectual battle and the Christians were on the losing side[10].

Notice the emphasis on the intellectual in the above paragraphs.  The battle was over who had the more persuasive words and the rulebook was philosophy. Compare that to:

My speech and my preaching were not in persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, (1Co 2:4 WEB)

This verse is another scripture that compares the advantages of human wisdom with the power of the spirit brought by Christ. In the comparison of human wisdom with its persuasive words versus the spirit, the spirit wins in Scripture. In philosophy, persuasive words win.  The shift we are discussing is one from ignorant and unlearned men demonstrating the spirit in power (Acts 4:13) to elite learned people for the most part unable to demonstrate power waging intellectual battles using the tools of philosophy.

Part of the reason for this, according to Frend, is that “God active in history on behalf of his people had little in common with the God of Stoicism or Platonism who existed but did not come into contact with matter, let alone intervene in nature.”[11]  People, maybe including the believers of that time, didn’t understand that our God was a God who enabled us with power for abundant living, and so instead chose to battle on the intellectual front rather than the spiritual.

That is not to say that defending the gospel with reasoning was not part of the original Christians’ charge given by the apostles.  The charge in scripture is to examine, reason, and defend what the gospel says. See the words examining, reason, and defense emboldened in the verses below:

Now these were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. (Act 17:11 WEB)

But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be prepared with a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; (1Pe 3:15 EMTV)

It is even right for me to think this way on behalf of all of you, because I have you in my heart, because, both in my bonds and in the defense and confirmation of the Good News, you all are partakers with me of grace. (Php 1:7 WEB)

Paul also wrote the warning against the wisdom of this world in the first chapter of Corinthians.

For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, I will bring the discernment of the discerning to nothing.” Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the lawyer of this world? Hasn’t God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom didn’t know God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save those who believe. For Jews ask for signs, Greeks seek after wisdom, (1Co 1:19-22 WEB)

It is written in Scripture to examine, to reason, and to defend the gospel at the same time we are to avoid the wisdom of the Greeks and the world.  The wisdom of the Greeks is philosophy. Paul charges us to examine, to reason, and to defend without using the wisdom of the world, philosophy.

Frend also notes that at this time the church was becoming increasingly Orthodox especially in Rome. For Irenaeus (circa 185) Rome became the example of a church emphasizing the importance of apostolic succession[12].  Remember apostolic succession means that the power and authority vested in the original apostles are transferred from Bishop to Bishop through ordination. But that also signifies that gift ministries like apostles and prophets manifesting the spirit are no longer in operation. There is clearly a shift from the emphasis of manifesting the power of the Holy Spirit to the intellectual and philosophical.

So thus emerged the age of Christian apologetics. This is the witness of the age. Christian apologists wrote letters to pagan magistrates and leaders but they were really open letters targeted to influence provincial opinion. The amount of writing done suggests that there was a place in society for this expression of Christian philosophy.[13]

According to Frend the apologetic movement looked to both Jewish models and the methods (but not the ideas) of philosophers.”[14]

Not all church fathers embraced this movement.

In the second century, the church father Tertullian wrote The Demurrer Against The Heretics[15].  In it, he says (in a form of older English) that

“these are the Doctrines of Men and Devils, derived from the Wisdom of this World, by Men who have curiously itching Ears; to which Wisdom our Lord having given the distinguishing Term and Denomination of Folly, “hath chosen the foolish Things of the World to confound the Wise.” For a rash Explication both of the Divine Nature and Dispensations, and the Manner of God’s Proceeding in the Work of Creation is the subject Matter of all wordly Philosophy. And from this corrupt Fountain did Heresies originally flow…from which the Apostle restraining us, hath especially bid us to beware of Philosophy, in his Epistle to the Colossans, saying, “Beware lest any Man spoil you thro’ Philosophy and vain Deceit, after the Tradition of Men, and not after Christ.” The Apostle had been at Athens, and from his learned Conversation there, had become acquainted with that human Wisdom, Which carries with it an Affectation and Pretence, as well as a Corruption of the Truth; and which is divided into a Multiplicity of Sects that strenuously oppose and contradict each other. But what Relation is there between Athens and Jerusalem? What Communion hath the Academy with the Church? or what part have Hereticks with Christians?”

There is nothing supportive of Christian incorporating philosophy in these comments by Tertullian who was writing at the beginning of the third century which is after the time of the apologists started.

But as time went on more and more church fathers supported philosophy.  By the third century, Christians put forth that their God was the supreme being of the philosophers which enabled them to be accepted among the intellectual crowd. The danger of course was that instead of talking about Christian truth in scriptural terms Christian truth was now discussed philosophically.[16]

Continuing this new tradition, the great Doctor of the Church, Augustine, argued that philosophy was a complement to theology when the philosophical insights used were rooted in an intellectual commitment to the truth of the Christian faith.

The prevailing attitude of people in support of the use of philosophy in Christian theology is that it is a necessary discipline to enhance biblical interpretation and explanation.[17]

Philosophy only became increasingly dominant as the centuries wore on. Here’s some insight that shows you how dominant philosophy was in the Middle Ages. And note that that philosophy was not always Christian:

Michael Psellus (1017-1078) was primarity responsible for the medieval revival of serious philosophical studies in the Byzantine East. He especially liked Platonism, and this led to the rise of the (mostly, but not always) Christian Platonism that became the dominant tradition of Byzantine civilization by the later Middle Ages.   The Platonist revival of the Western Renaissance followed from this.[18]

Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, on the eve of the Council of Florence, was sent to Constantinople where he encountered Byzantine Platonism and scholarship. He reported that that caused a great awakening about things such as the nature of the infinite, upon God, the person of Christ, even celestial movements.[19] Notice this another reference to Byzantine Platonism which is a dominant philosophy from the world. This reflects how entrenched in worldly thinking the church was by the Middle Ages.

There are more on a list of famous Christian philosophers including Thomas Aquinas and Soren Kierkegaard.

In more recent times Christian theologians have embraced philosophy for the sake of philosophy.  Look at this quote

“Quite apart from its relationship to Christianity, we believe that philosophical debate has merit. Its questions are significant and of fundamental and enduring value. It is true that philosophical thought can significantly contribute to theological understanding. However, the heirs of philosophy must be recognized and refuted, to confirm the reasonableness of Christianity.”[20]

In modern times there are books written promoting the advantages of incorporating philosophy into Christianity. First, it is presented that philosophizing is a common activity by people:

“At various times everyone philosophizes… This philosophizing takes place whenever one reflects upon either the fundamental presuppositions of thought and action, or the ends to which the conduct of human life should be directed.”[21]

According to philosophical theologians, the value of philosophy is that it “can help liberate one from the grip of prejudice, provincialism, and poor reasoning. In philosophical reflection, we can gain distance from her own beliefs and those of others, and view them with some skepticism.”

The authors of Introduction to Philosophy proceed to the point of extolling both the need and virtue of philosophy:

“A Christian has a specific interest in and responsibility to study philosophy… Since all truth is God’s truth, and since philosophy is a quest for truth, then philosophy will contribute to our understanding of God and his world. Furthermore, history shows that philosophical arguments and concepts have played a large and important role in the development of Christian theology… While not all theologians agree on the value or appropriateness of these arguments, all admit that some knowledge of philosophical roots is necessary to the understanding of Christian theology.”[22]

The above statements acknowledge the development of Christian doctrine by philosophical means as opposed to just sticking to what is revealed in scripture.

A more in depth look at the methods of philosophy is necessary to understand the implication of the statements above. Previously on this website we have looked at some of the origins of philosophy and its thinking processes.

In philosophy logical arguments break down into two basic kinds, deductive and inductive.[23]  Rules for the validity of deductive arguments are in the form of deductive syllogisms, consisting of a major premise, minor premise, and a conclusion, and these were first systematically set down by Aristotle.

Aristotle is credited with defining the rules for deductive reasoning. “Simply put, deductive reasoning is arguing from the general to the particular. If all horses are four-legged animals (the general), and the black beauty is a horse (the particular), then it follows that black beauty is also a four-legged animal.” This series of propositions is called a syllogism, the standard form of a deductive argument. Inductive reasoning is the reverse whereby one argues from the particular to the general. For example, all observable elements of a wall are stone. Therefore, this is a stone wall.[24]

Inductive reasoning is the other form of reasoning with its own set of rules. Inductive reasoning is used to construct Christian doctrine by looking at a comprehensive view, examining the parts of the whole, and making conclusions as to whether or not something is true.

Part of the process here includes using “a priori” claims. A priori comes from the Latin meaning before. A priori claims are things that you can base your argument on because they are self-evident.  You don’t have to prove these claims because everyone knows that they are true, or at least that is the claim of the philosopher.  In math, all angles in a triangle add up to 180 degrees.  When you are arguing math you don’t have to prove that.  Or that 1+1=2. In your argument, you can assume them to be true. When you use a priori claims you are starting with an assumption that something is true.  That is part of this process.

There are also “a postieri” (from the Latin meaning after) claims.  These are conclusions reached after experimenting to find the truth.  They are a vital part of the scientific method.

An example of inductive reasoning is used when saying water baptism is the standard for all time.

I have read books that said that water is assumed (a priori claim) when the word baptism is used in the Bible. The inductive argument that follows goes like this. There was a practice of baptizing in water in the Old Testament. John baptized with water, and he also baptized Jesus in water. In the New Testament, Philip baptized with water, and even Peter asked “who can forbid water?”  Now add in the assumption (a priori claim) that the definition of baptism implies water (which it does not, but we need to go along to see how the reasoning works) and what you have is that every time it mentions baptism it means baptism in water. The only exceptions are the day of Pentecost and in other places where the descent of the spirit is explicitly detailed. Plus, in looking at the documents in the early days of the church after the apostles we see that water baptism is practiced. Thus, looking at all these details, we come to the conclusion, falsely I believe, that water baptism is the God-given standard for all time. We have taken all the pieces, accepted the assumption that baptism means with water, and found a way to inductively prove that water baptism is the standard. Even the mandates of “John baptized with water but you shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost” are handled with the explanation that Holy Ghost baptisms were just a few exceptions and water baptism is the norm.

In contrast to that, you could just read what is written. The word baptize is translated wash in Mark 7:4,8. The prophecy could be translated “John washed with water but you shall be washed with the Holy Ghost”. This is a classic case of everything that is done in the Old Testament are examples and foreshadowing of the things that are done in Christ’s church (Heb 10:1, ICor 10:11).  What does the prophecy say about water washing and spirit washing?

For example, cars in the 20th century use gasoline but cars in the 22nd century will use electricity. No one misunderstands that that means that electricity is going to replace gasoline as the fuel. Or Roman soldiers used swords but today soldiers use guns. Again, is there any misunderstanding that sentence means that guns have replaced swords as the weapon for soldiers? No of course not.  The prophecy clearly says spirit washing replaced water washing.

Now, there were water baptisms mentioned in the book of Acts, but when we see those circumstances we see that apostles were sent to make sure that Spirit baptism occurred. All of these factors teach us that the assumption that baptism automatically means water is false, and part of the mission of the apostles in the first-century church was to bring in spirit baptism as a replacement to water-baptism as it so plainly says in “John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit”. Yes, it looks like the practice was lost not long after the apostles, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the mandate then, and more importantly, it’s still the mandate today. (See T 1.8 Tradition in Original Christianity, Part 8, The Spirit Baptism Mandate, John Baptized With Water, But You Will Be Baptized with the Holy Spirit for more)

Likewise, the Cessation doctrine starts with the assumption (a priori claim) that the gifts and manifestations of the Spirit ended with the apostles. There is deductive logic used by some that you can conclude from  1 Corinthians 13:8-10 that the gifts have ceased, but that requires the assumption that “that which is complete is come” refers to the canon of scripture, but that is not in scripture and is a false assumption.

The classic example of inductive reasoning in Christianity is the Trinity and so we will look at it here. First, there is no deductive proof of the Trinity so in order for the proof to work the Trinity must be assumed to be true.

For example, there is no proof, philosophical or otherwise, for even the existence of God. In making their arguments for or against God philosophically, both Christians and non-Christians start with their assumption that either God exists in the case of the Christian, or the God doesn’t exist in the case of the atheist.

No proof of God means that there is no proof of a solitary God or a triune God, so likewise the Trinitarian starts with the axiom (a priori claim) that God is triune. Then the logic flows in inductive reasoning “from the parts to the whole.”

So, the logic flows like this:  if God is a triune God, then what would we expect to find?   We expect to find that there is only one God in the Bible.  We expect to find that God exists in three persons named the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We expect to find that Jesus preexisted before his birth from all eternity and was never created or brought into existence. We expect to find that the attributes of God are attributed to Jesus. We expect to find that Jesus was called God and worshiped as God by the first Christians.  There are more requirements in this list of expectations.  But theologians seeking to prove the Trinity have used this inductive method of logic to first assume a triune God and put the pieces together to prove what has come to be is called essential Christian doctrine in Orthodox Christianity.

The Trinity is so important, in fact, that it has been declared “whosoever will be saved, we all before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic [that is, the church’s Orthodox] faith; which faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt, he shall perish everlastingly. And the Catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity (Athanasian Creed)”.  One author goes on to say that salvation by grace alone, Christ’s atonement, and the resurrection may be all of first importance but they don’t make the gospel Christian! The Trinity does.[25]

However, despite the fact that the above is written in an introductory book to Christians, the fact is that the Athanasian creed above is rarely mentioned in churches, and the doctrine contained therein not promoted.[26]  In Theology Is As Clear As Mud To Americans in 2020 we see that while most Americans (72%) will at least partly agree with the statement that there is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, only 36% disagreed with the statement that Jesus is not God and 55% at least partly agreed that Jesus is the greatest being created by God.  Both of these latter statements are not Trinitarian statements. That indicates that the doctrine is either not understood or just not agreed with, no matter how much it is preached from the pulpit or written about in books or articles. Nevertheless, this is the dominant doctrine in Christianity since the 4th century.

The things in the paragraph above point to the added complexity that this inductively developed doctrine brings to the table, and the problem that it creates for people.  As mentioned in other places both the use of inductive combined with deductive reasoning and the whole development of the Deity of Christ, the Trinity as well as Mary as the mother of God among other developed doctrines were intellectual battles among very intelligent learned bishops where the final victories were celebrated as intellectual victories.

Let’s look at more verses used in the proof of the Trinity:

There is one body, and one Spirit, even as you also were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in us all. (Eph 4:4-6 WEB)

The above verses talk about one Spirit, one Lord (Jesus Christ), one God and father of all, the three persons named as the Trinity. However, this is not proof of the Trinity because all of the requirements of the Trinity are not fulfilled in these verses. For example, it does not say that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are of the same substance. It does not say here that they are all co-eternal.  In applying philosophical methods to this verse and others like it, there is not enough to deductively prove the Trinity. But given the assumption of a triune God, this verse is consistent with that assumption of the Trinity and thus is used in an inductive proof of the Trinity.

The Trinitarian view is that the Trinity has internal consistency within a comprehensive view of scripture and accounts for all the facts of stated about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit without contradiction.  Of course, you must start with the assumption of a Trinity which philosophy allows you to do and you must use extrabiblical arguments as well as concede that even with that the doctrine will be not understandable.

Likewise for this verse:

I and the Father are one.”  (Joh 10:30 WEB)

This verse does not prove that Jesus is God as the Father is God. But used in an inductive argument it is consistent with the Trinity once you make the assumption of a triune God that includes the Father and the Son.  But if “oneness” with the Father makes one God, then what happens in this verse:

that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that you sent me. (Joh 17:21 WEB)

Here we have the same kind of “oneness” that we see in John 10:30 above expressed in John 17:21 to include all of us believers. If John 10:30 makes Jesus God the same as God the Father, then John 17:21 makes you and I and every other believer on the same level of godhood as the Son of God and God the Father, according to that logic.

Thus, according to what is involved here you can’t prove the Trinity or the Incarnation without philosophy, specifically including inductive logic methods using a priori claims, and this is why many modern theologians promote philosophy as absolutely essential to understanding Christianity.

These are not fluke examples. There just are no verses that prove the Trinity by themselves. Look at this:

that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him;  (Eph 1:17 WEB)

The above verse discusses the Father, the Son, and the spirit but in no way teaches that they are all God, or co-eternal, or other important elements of the Trinity.  How about this famous one:

Without controversy, the mystery of godliness is great: God was revealed in the flesh, justified in the spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, and received up in glory. (1Ti 3:16 WEB)

How can “God was revealed in the flesh” not prove the Trinity? It must, right? The truth is that scholars agree that most texts do not say God there. Instead of Theos in the Greek, the Greek word used mostly in the texts is hos which simply means which or who. The verse talks about the mystery of godliness which was manifest in the flesh.  Every being with Holy Spirit, which includes all true Christians, manifest godliness whenever they walk in the spirit. Every time someone speaks in tongues or hears from God or heals someone, they are manifesting godliness. No, this verse does not prove the Trinity.

Or how about the verses used to prove he is co-eternal?  Look at Colossians 1:

who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in the heavens and on the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things are held together.  (Col 1:15-17 WEB)

What about “by him all things were created”? Doesn’t that mean he is God? The Greek word translated “by” is en,  which means in, not automatically making him the causal agent. Things created in someone are not the same as created by someone.  Or how about “all things were created by him” later in the verse?  That preposition is dia, which means “through”, or even “because of”.  Again, created through someone is not the same as created by someone.

The word image is ikone in Greek, meaning likeness or representation. That is saying that Christ is a representation of God as opposed to God himself. Coupled with that he is the “firstborn of all creation” and the above elements, the logic here is that Jesus Christ was created first (first born) and all other things were created on account of him. Without the assumption of the Trinity, biblical hermeneutics would lead one here to that firstborn here should be interpreted like all the other places that firstborn is used, the first child of the parent, with the implication that he didn’t exist and now he does.

“He is before all things.”  If I said to you “before anything else I want you to pray” it means that praying is the most important thing, it is first and foremost.  Likewise, “He is before all things” means Jesus Christ is foremost or most important.

Thus, if you don’t assume the Trinity this verse doesn’t prove the Trinity.  However, like the above verses, if you assume the Trinity then this verse can be used to help inductively “prove” the Trinity as long as you argue that “firstborn of all creation” does not mean that Jesus Christ had a beginning. You just have to assume here that firstborn doesn’t mean created like all those other places in Scripture despite the fact that all other usages of “firstborn, including the first usage refer to a created being.  “Begotten, not made” is the argument we have all heard.  Firstborn of all creation in the proof of the Trinity does not mean that Christ has a beginning or was created, rather it means he was more important than all creation. It has to be that way because that is the only way that phrase fits into the comprehensive view of a triune God.

Hopefully, now you are beginning to see why scholars have said that there are no verses that prove the Trinity directly nor is the Trinity directly taught in Scripture. For every verse that supposedly proves the Trinity, without the assumption that the Trinity exists there is a valid counterargument to disprove the Trinity. That is why the doctrine of the Trinity was developed using extra-biblical means, the inductive logic methods and a priori claims used in philosophy as well as words like homosousias (of one substance) not found in scripture. The New Bible Dictionary says:

“As already indicated, Scripture does not give us a fully formulated doctrine of the Trinity, but it contains all the elements out of which theology has constructed the doctrine.”[31]

The doctrines of salvation, atonement, and many others are fully formulated in Scripture.  The Trinity is not.  It can’t be read as is or deducted from scripture.  It has to be constructed using these a priori, inductive tools of philosophy.

However, the Trinitarian position is that every one of the above verses I discussed is consistent with an inductive proof of the Trinity once you include the “given”, the assumption that the Trinity exists before you start the proof.  But this opens the door that it is okay to go to scripture with assumptions or preconceived ideas and find ways that scriptures can be interpreted to prove your assumption.  So water baptism as the norm in the church age is inductively provable.  The cessation of spiritual manifestations is inductively provable, and so forth.

How is the Trinity explained and taught today? It’s just preached while admitting that it is confusing. One website writes, “The most difficult thing about the Christian concept of the Trinity is that there is no way to perfectly and completely understand it. The Trinity is a concept that is impossible for any human being to fully understand, let alone explain.”[27]

Still, as regards including philosophical things in the study of Christianity, Christian philosophical theologians argue that you cannot be aware of false philosophy unless you are first aware of it. They say the Christian church has been led into false teaching because they are not adequately trained to detect false teaching. The good counterfeit will be as close to the truth as possible. That’s why false non-Christian philosophies dressed up like Christian philosophies are the most dangerous.

One famous pro-philosophy Christian writer is CS Lewis who said “to be ignorant and simple now – not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground – would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray her uneducated brethren who have, under God no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”[28] Here CS Lewis clearly delineates between good philosophy and bad philosophy and he promotes the necessity of the use of philosophy in studying God.

Some writers contend that in order to think properly, that is, correctly and comprehensively about the world or the Word, one must use philosophy. Philosophy is required in the systematization of Christianity, and also required for proper communication. In the end, the authors contend that it is philosophy which enables the Christian to make sense out of his faith.[29]

The fact still remains that there is no scriptural endorsement of philosophy, only warnings about its dangers, and in contrast to that, there are numerous books that say without philosophy you cannot understand essential Christian doctrine, especially the Trinity.

And all of this is despite the fact that studies have shown that the majority of Christians, at least in this country, either do not understand or believe the doctrine of the trinity with its philosophically based proof.[30]

I can’t remember being at services where a preacher closed it with a call to the Trinity.  They close their services with an altar call and preach verses like:

that if you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart, one believes unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. (Rom 10:9-10 WEB)

The philosophically based method of inductive reasoning developing Christianity theology is used to say verses like Romans 10 : 9-10 are insufficient by themselves for salvation because the doctrine of the Trinity is the more important doctrine.  That is controversial, to say the least.

The same method allows for making claims like the word baptism means with water, and the gifts of the spirit have ceased, by making a priori claims or assumptions, and then finding verses that substantiate that claim.

Philosophy has now been controversially used in the church for nineteen centuries.

[1] Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem, Zondervan, Grand Rapids,1994, p. 21

[2] Lectures in Systematic Theology, Henry C Theissen, Erdman’s, Grand Rapids, revised 1979, P. Three

[3] Systematic Theology, Volume 1, Paul Tillich, the University of Chicago press, Chicago 1950 1P. Three

[4] Ibid, p. 129

[5] The Rise of Christianity, W. H. C. Frend, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1984, p. 230

[6] A History Of The Christian Church, Williston Walker, Scribner, New York, 1959, P. 31

[7] The Story Of Christianity, Justo L Gonzales, Harper one, New York, 2010, P. 19

[8] ibid., P. 22

[9] The Rise of Christianity, P. 230-231

[10] Ibid.

[11] The Rise of Christianity, P. 230

[12] The Rise of Christianity, P. 232

[13] The Rise of Christianity, P. 234

[14] The Rise of Christianity, P. 231

[15] Joseph Betty, Tertullian’s Prescription against Hereticks. Oxford (1722) pp. 1-87, Chapter VII

[16] The Story of Christianity, P. 182

[17] (DOC) How is philosophy related to theology Philosophical and Moral Theology | Regenerated mbc –

[18] The Story of Christianity, David Bentley Hart, Quercus, 2007, p. 145-146

[19] The Story of Christianity, Hart, P. 178 – 179

[20] Introduction to Philosophy, A Christian Perspective, Norman L Geisler and Paul D Feinberg, Baker books, Grand Rapids, 1980, P. 5 – 6

[21] Introduction to Philosophy, P. 12

[22] Introduction to Philosophy, P. 20 – 22

[23] Introduction to Philosophy, P. 28

[24] Introduction to Philosophy, P. 41 – 42

[25] Delighting In The Trinity, Michael Reeves, University press academic, Downers Grove, 2012, P. 14

[26] What is Athanasian Creed?

[27] What does the Bible teach about the Trinity? |

[28] Good Philosophy Must Exist |

[29] Introduction To Philosophy, p.78

[30] Theology Is As Clear As Mud To Americans in 2020

[31] New Bible Dictionary, Erdman’s, Grand Rapids, 1962, P. 1299

last edited 4/26/23

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