In ancient, medieval and modern times, one of the toughest Christian theological ideas for both Christians and non-Christians to grasp has been the Trinity. The Nicene Creed (c. 325) put the interesting relationship between Jesus and the other branches of the Trinity as “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father.” Or, as the hymnist Reginald Heber (1783-1826) envisioned it, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity!” Non-believers have long targeted the odd fit of the Trinity in the monotheistic framework of Christianity, and among early Christian communities, differing opinions on the hierarchy (or lack thereof) among the three persons in the Trinity caused several schisms between the followers of Jesus’ teachings.
Arianism, founded by Arius (c. 250-336), was one of the greatest rival Christian viewpoints that stood in opposition to the doctrines put forward by Rome and Constantinople. Arian Christians took a more literal interpretation of the father-and-son relationship between God the Father and Jesus, and therefore claimed Jesus was a second-tier figure in the holy hierarchy, ranking him as younger and less powerful than God the Father. Many of the so-called ‘barbarians’ who invaded the Roman Empire and set up their own kingdoms in former imperial land, such as the Visigoths and the Lombards, were Arian Christians—King Clovis of the Franks (r. 481-511) was an anomaly among the early Germanic kings when decided to follow the orthodoxy of Rome and Constantinople.
King Clovis’ descendant, Chilperic (r. 561-584), recognized the confusion over the Trinity and, interestingly, attempted to reform and simplify the phrases used when describing the Trinity. Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594) described the monarch’s ambitious scheme: “King Chilperic published a decree that we should make no distinction of Persons in the Holy Trinity, but call it simply God” (History of the Franks, V.44). The clergy, as may be expected, were not amused with the king’s dabbling in church affairs, and resisted the suggestion. Bishop Gregory, when he rejected the king’s degree, also tried to make the encounter a teaching-moment to steer Chilperic back to the Church of Rome’s interpretation of the Trinity. According to Gregory, the monarch only became annoyed at rejection and retorted, “I will put these matters to men who are more wise than you and they will agree with me” (History of the Franks, V.44). Several days later, Chilperic, reportedly asked Bishop Salvius of Albi to back his person-less interpretation of the Trinity. Salvius, however, responded with more outrage and indignation than any of the previous bishops. With this latest critic voicing opposition to his decree, Chilperic finally dropped his proposal to remove the phrase of ‘persons’ from talk of the Trinity.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Chilperic from BL Royal 16 G VI, f. 52 , [Public Domain] via Creative Commons, Europeana and The British Library).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.