Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.01.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.01.16

Marian Hillar, From Logos to Trinity: The Evolution of Religious Beliefs from Pythagoras to Tertullian.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2012.  Pp. xi, 320.  ISBN 9781107013308.  £60.00.  

Reviewed by Joe McCoy, The University of Nevada, Reno (


There are three distinct levels of concern in Marian Hillar’s From Logos to Trinity: The Evolution of Religious Beliefs from Pythagoras to Tertullian. The first is that the doctrine of the Trinity—that the Divinity comprises three persons in a single nature—is a creed alien to the authentic Christianity of the Apostolic generation. Second, Hillar proposes the excision of this doctrine from Christian theology as a necessary condition for the reunification of Christianity as well as for a broader rapprochement among the great monotheistic religions. Third, Hillar presents an historical account of how the seeds of this doctrine were implanted and grew in the early Church. Hillar’s thesis is that the Jewish wisdom and Messianic traditions were misappropriated by early Christian thinkers and conflated with metaphysical notions, which were current in the early Roman Empire. The result is a basic incoherence in the heart of Christian theology that compromised its teachings over the course of the following two millennia.

It is important to distinguish the overarching theological and ecumenical concerns that motivate From Logos to Trinity from Hillar’s methodological approach to the historical material. Much of what is of interest is the survey of both the Greek philosophical tradition as well as Jewish thought that precede the logos being identified as the expected Jewish Messiah and with the Son of God in Trinitarian doctrine. Accordingly, Chapter 1 gives an overview of philosophical speculation making use of logos from Pythagoras through Plato and Aristotle up to the Stoics. Chapter 2 covers the notion of the “word of God” (dvar Elohim), which is closely associated with God’s wisdom (hokhmah). Crucial in this chapter is the role of Philo of Alexandria who attempts a Hellenization of Jewish theology and so hypostatizes the “word of God.” Chapter 3 is titled “The Development of Jewish Messianic Traditions” and discusses the various strands of the Jewish view of the Messiah, which, Hillar argues, involve a human figure and usually a political leader on the model of King David, but not a divine person. In Chapter 4, “The Development of the Hellenistic Christian Doctrine,” he holds the main pieces of Trinitarian doctrine were in place, with the full doctrine only waiting for later thinkers to explicate. The first stage of this remaining work was to be accomplished by Justin Martyr, covered in Chapters 5 and 6, and then the full Trinitarian view brought to fruition by Tertullian, covered in Chapters 7 and 8. Chapter 9 is somewhat incongruous, as it treats Thomas Aquinas on the Trinity. Aquinas lived nearly a millennium after Tertullian, and the interim developments, such as the early Christological debates, the Arian controversy and the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, the relevant works of Augustine and Boethius, to name a few, are omitted.

The main difficulty in Hillar’s methodological approach to the historical sources is his implicit assumption that there were no conceptual breaks or discontinuities between early, Apostolic Christianity and the historical and messianic Judaism in the Roman world. In other words, granted that there was no distinct ontological status to God’s Word in Judaism, early Christianity could not have contained such a notion either. And yet early Christianity was not loath to distinguish itself, sometimes sharply, from the Judaism of its day, for example, in its rejection of the restoration of a Davidic monarchy as the Messianic mission. Indeed, it was perhaps even more eager to distinguish itself from the Greek intellectual milieu, which Paul frequently speaks of disparagingly (e.g. Ephesians 4:17-19), and which found the notion of an incarnate, crucified, and bodily resurrected god to be a grotesque oxymoron. This is not to say that the precursors Hillar identifies could not have combined so as to generate the doctrine of the Trinity. But it is to say that given the evidence provided, we cannot distinguish Hillar’s own narrative of events from the view that early Christian writers intentionally employed Greek notions in order to explicate the reality they understood to have been communicated in their experience with Christ and with his teachings.

Hillar’s thesis in From Logos to Trinity is thus underdetermined by his method and its tendentious character can be seen in the statements he makes in its favor in Chapter 4, which I quote at length:

The Roman Catholic Church maintained that the doctrine of the triune God was contained or at least implied in the scriptural texts of the Old and the New Testaments and that such was their message. The doctrine was established as a dominant one in the fourth century by combining it with a means of coercion in the form of state law and preventing any independent scholarly study of the sacred texts. It took the Reformation and the Radical Reformation to initiate a painful and often bloodily repressed process of reevaluation of the sacred texts and a return to their original meaning.

The acceptance of the trinitarian doctrine is based on human psychological conditioning. Even today, most Christians when facing the obvious scholarly arguments against the Trinity in the scriptures, bluntly refuse to consider them because they feel a threat to their pious belief in Jesus and the “Holy Spirit.” This concept reflects the presumed highest level of piety by ascribing to the Christ-Messiah all possible perfections we can humanly imagine, thus equating him ontologically with the divinity. (132)

These claims are quite dubious historically. First, it is prima facie untenable (and nowhere supported in Hillar’s present study) that the early Church implemented the doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth century as a political tool to establish its hegemony. To believe this, one must suppose that, just at the moment of its legalization under Constantine, the Christian Church, which had been persecuted for three centuries as atheistic for denying the gods of Rome, decided to flirt with plurality in the Godhead, despite the considerable risk of offending the first avowedly monotheistic emperor. Second, while state power may have consolidated the Trinitarian position after the Arian controversy had run its course, it is a highly unlikely that it was cause of it. The Christian Church’s alliance with the Roman state developed alongside the definition of the Trinity as dogma. Christianity was merely legalized in A.D. 313 by the Edict of Milan, and did not become the official state religion until A.D. 380 under Theodosius, only one year before the Council of Constantinople when the Arian controversy was finally put to rest. Third, the Reformation and the “bloodily repressed process” of rereading the sacred texts have no real bearing on the origin of Trinitarian doctrine, which was scarcely questioned in that period.

The ad hominem argumentation Hillar uses in the above quoted passage is particularly unfortunate. Since the “scholarly arguments” against Trinitarian doctrine are “obvious,” he holds that “psychological conditioning” is the only explanation for its continued acceptance. As a matter of logic, this is no refutation. Regrettably it is necessary to repeat the nature of the fallacy here: a proposition might be held for any number of reasons, or even for no reason at all, and still be perfectly correct. Yet even assuming the “psychological conditioning” view, Hillar would still need to show that asserting God’s triune personhood was an especially useful instrument in achieving political ends where its denial was not—that it played upon preexisting interests or prejudices or that it flattered the intellectual vanity of Christians at that time. Again this is very implausible historically: the early Christian church, like Judaism before it, was steadfastly monotheistic, a principle for which it was brutally persecuted over the first centuries of its existence. Indeed, during much of the fourth century, Arianism was the more popular view throughout the Empire and newly converted German tribes. Constantine himself seemed, if anything, to incline toward the Arian party throughout much of the controversy, even receiving baptism from a former Arian bishop on his deathbed. Hence, Hillar’s view implies that Trinitarian “psychological conditioning” was so effective as to create out of whole cloth an ingrained, persistent belief that nevertheless runs contrary to reason, piety, fellow-feeling, and self-interest.

Given Hillar’s statements as to the actual grounds for the acceptance of Trinitarian doctrine, his historical approach to the subject becomes less intelligible. If Trinitarianism was in fact an opiate for the masses, what Heraclitus or Plato, or Philo or Justin Martyr for that matter could offer would have been of very little independent interest to a fourth century Christians and their leaders. It is unclear, then, why the examination of, say, the Presocratics on the logos should be necessary in order to expose this cynical fraud perpetrated in the fourth century. Instead, we would expect a historical critique of Trinitarian doctrine to take the form of an account of the motivations and tactics of those peculiar bishops in the early church as to how this innovation was calculated to achieve political dominance. Yet we find relatively little discussion of what the doctrine of the Trinity actually consists of, the circumstances and debates that occasioned its development, and how those who actually formulated and defended the teachings of Nicaea and Constantinople characterize it.

This neglect of Church history leads to a number of mistakes, or even straw-man accounts of the doctrine. For example, the statement on pg. 109 that, as one substance and three persons, “the Trinity is ‘quadernity’.” This facile distortion—something like saying if three quarters are lying on the table and all are currency, then there are four objects on the table—is addressed in most rudimentary presentations of Trinitarian doctrine. On pg. 257 he states that “Tertullian was first to use the term ‘Trinity’” and cites the author’s treatise Contra Praxeam written c. A.D. 218. In fact the first use of “Trinity” in the context of Christian theology is by Theophilus of Antioch in To Autolycus (II, 15) dating to around A.D. 181, where the author invokes the term in his exposition of Genesis, that is, as a familiar term. Although Contra Praxeam is the first treatise on the Trinity as such, the word “Trinity” appears in an earlier work of Tertullian’s, On Modesty (XXI, 16) probably written around A.D. 200, where it is mentioned in passing as well. By commonly accepted standards of evidence, this places the word “Trinity” as an established Christian concept relating to the Godhead in the early second century, to say nothing of the substance of the doctrine.

By way of conclusion, a word should be added regarding Hillar’s broader project of recovering a more authentic Christian theology through the excision of Trinitarianism. Hillar gives much credit to Michael Servetus in articulating the position he takes in From Logos to Trinity. A polymath living in the sixteenth century at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Servetus believed that the Trinity was the corrupt germ leading to the disturbances and upheavals that Latin Christendom was just beginning to experience and whose removal would lead not only to greater Christian unity, but would also set the stage for a possible rapprochement with Judaism and Islam. Given Hillar’s broader project of theological harmony among the monotheisms of the world, it seems fitting to correct another common misunderstanding, namely, the view that there is nothing in the other monotheisms that answers to the role played by the Trinity. In Judaism, for example, the Torah, the wisdom of God, has been held to be eternal, or at least that its existence vastly predates Moses’ reception of it on Mt. Sinai. In Islam, the Quran has been generally regarded as the eternal and uncreated word of God, with the minority position being that it is a temporal record of the revelations of the Prophet. Perhaps even more dramatically, the Sikh religion regards its holy script, the Guru Granth Sahib, as a person with the authority possessed as the successor of the living Gurus. All these facts suggest that parallels between the theologies of the great monotheisms and Christian Trinitarianism on the ontological status of God’s Wisdom have yet to be acknowledged and explored.

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