Levi Paine and the Evolution of Trinitarianism
A popular source often quoted out of context by critics of the doctrine of the Trinity is Levi Leonard Paine’s book A Critical History of the Evolution of Trinitarianism.1 Paine was a professor of church history at Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine in the last part of the nineteenth century. This is the statement that is usually quoted from his book:
The Old Testament is strictly monotheistic. God is a single personal being. The idea that a Trinity is to be found there...is utterly without foundation.... On this point there is no break between the Old Testament and the New. The monotheistic tradition is continued. Jesus was a Jew, trained by Jewish parents in the Old Testament scriptures. His teaching was Jewish to the core; a new gospel indeed, but not a new theology…. And he accepted as his own belief the great text of Jewish monotheism: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one God." (4)
In most cases, the critics who quote Paine would not agree with his actual position. These critics profess to accept the whole Bible as God’s word and are quoting Paine selectively to make it sound as if the doctrine of the Trinity has no basis in the Bible. They can do this because Paine thought the doctrine evolved (hence the title of his book) from a more primitive, Judaic belief in Jesus as the Messiah to a more philosophical and Greek doctrine of Jesus as God. This means, of course, that he claimed to find evidence for the earlier, Judaic belief in parts of the New Testament. However, Paine also argued that Trinitarianism, which he called Athanasianism, “has its roots in the New Testament” (4). The critics typically leave out this statement, even though it appears at the beginning of the very same paragraph from which they derive their preferred quotation.
The way Paine presented the evolution of Trinitarianism makes it clear that he recognized its origins as coming from the New Testament writings, especially Paul, Hebrews, and John. It also shows that Paine simply did not accept much of what the New Testament says. For example, Paine argued that the accounts of Jesus’ virgin birth constituted a "second stratum of evolution in the New Testament" (8), that they were added later to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and that those accounts are legends, not history (9-15). According to Paine, the point of these additions was that they made "Christ a sort of demi-god" (10).
In Paine’s view, “the third stratum of Trinitarian evolution is marked by the intrusion of Greek philosophical thought into the Jewish Palestinian.” This “third stratum, which is introduced by the Epistles of Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews, is of Alexandrian Greek origin and character” (17). Paine thought that Paul was heavily influenced in his doctrine of Christ by the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo (18). “Through Paul the gospel passed from the world of Judaism into the world of Greek philosophy” (19). “We are thus prepared to understand the significance of Paul in this survey of the historical evolution of the Trinitarian dogma. This dogma, as it was finally developed by the theologians of the third and fourth centuries, is essentially Greek, not Jewish; Alexandrian, not Palestinian; and to Paul we must look for its real beginnings” (20). Paul places Christ "next to God in nature, honor, and power; so that, while remaining a monotheist, he takes a long step toward a monotheistic trinitarianism, giving us the one only trinitarian benediction of the New Testament (2 Cor. xiii.14)" (22). Thus Paul was still staunchly monotheistic, as was the Trinitarianism that developed from his thought. “In fact, the more pronounced the Greek Trinitarianism became, the more tenaciously its monotheism was declared and vindicated” (23). So Paine does claim that Trinitarianism is rooted in Greek thought—but he blames this on Paul, not on Athanasius or other church fathers!
As for the Gospel of John, “The fourth Gospel is mystical, with a spice of Neo-Platonism, reminding one of Philo…. But the fourth Gospel gives the clearest signs of Gnostic influence” (33). Paine viewed the Gospel of John as originating well into the second century. We now know this was not the case,5 but the point here is that Paine dismissed the Gospel of John as a reliable source of information about Jesus. Instead, he viewed it as a late, mystical interpretation of Jesus based on pagan Greek thought.
According to Paine, Jesus "professed only to be, just what he was, a plain unlettered Galilean peasant" (268). To the objection that the Bible presents Jesus as making divine claims, Paine retorts that the Bible cannot be viewed as "the old theology" maintained:
Legend just as plainly plays its part in Matthew, Luke, and Acts as in Genesis and Kings, though not perhaps as fully.... The traditional dates and authors of by far the largest part of the Biblical writings are of no historical value.... On these uncritical and unhistorical assumptions as to the character of the Bible there had been built in the course of centuries a system of Christian dogmas which became the religious faith of Christendom.... Its presuppositions of a divine miraculous origin and character, differentiating the Bible from all other religious literature, can no longer be admitted. Historically considered, the Bible is simply a literary product of the Hebrew and Jewish nation (188-90, 269).
This is the substance behind the out-of-context quotation from Paine that anti-Trinitarians are citing as an argument against the doctrine of the Trinity. They cannot do this and maintain any consistency in claiming to believe the Bible as the word of God.
1. All parenthetical citations in this article are from Levi Leonard Paine, A Critical History of the Evolution of Trinitarianism: And Its Outcome in the New Christology (Boston: Houghton Mifflin; Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1900).
2. Anthony F. Buzzard, Jesus Was Not a Trinitarian: A Call to Return to the Creed of Jesus (Morrow, GA: Restoration Fellowship, 2007), 355; see also Anthony F. Buzzard and and Charles F. Hunting, The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity’s Self-Inflicted Wound (Lanham, MD: International Scholars Publications, 1998), 29-30. Many opponents of the doctrine of the Trinity copy this quotation from Buzzard without ever looking at Paine’s book. See, for example, Kulwant Singh Boora, The Oneness of God and the Doctrine of the Trinity (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2009), 38-39, and his acknowledgment of Buzzard (n. 93).
3. E.g., Kegan A. Chandler, The God of Jesus in Light of Christian Dogma: The Recovery of New Testament Theology (McDonough, GA: Restoration Fellowship, 2016), 345; “Whose Faith Is It Really?” (no author given), Biblical Unitarian website, n.d. Chandler also quotes multiple times from Paine's subsequent book The Ethnic Trinities and Their Relations to the Christian Trinity (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1901); see Chandler, God of Jesus, 14, 55, 67, 80, 118, 154, 166, 277, 476. The premise of Paine's second book is that any apparent reference to three deities, no matter how loosely connected or what the larger religious context might be, is an example of a so-called "ethnic trinity." As an example of Chandler's misuse of Paine, in one place he quotes Paine at some length ending with the following sentence: "It is true that Christianity was afterwards developed into a philosophical creed, as is true of all religious ideas, but this historical process cannot be traced to its founder" (Chandler, God of Jesus, 276-77, citing Paine, Ethnic Trinities, 202-203). In the very next sentence, however, omitted by Chandler, Paine stated: "Paul, as we shall see, was the historical bridge between the 'good news' of Jesus of Nazareth and the speculative philosophy of the Nicene Creed" (Ethnic Trinities, 203).
4. Should You Believe in the Trinity? Is Jesus Christ the Almighty God? (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1989), 12-13. This 32-page “brochure,” which the Watchtower says it translated into 95 languages, also appeared on its official website until a few years ago (perhaps around 2011), when without explanation it became mysteriously unavailable. Yet it remains listed in its online Publications Index for 1986 to 2015, and it is part of the Watchtower Library 2015 software program (which is generally available only to members).
5. Again, most of the contemporary critics of the doctrine of the Trinity who are citing Paine rightly regard the Gospel of John as a first-century work reflecting apostolic testimony. On the origins, composition, and context of the Gospel of John, see especially Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003); Gary M. Burge, Interpreting the Gospel of John: A Practical Guide, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 5-99.