AskDefine | Define tritheism

Dictionary Definition

tritheism n : (Christianity) the heretical belief that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are three separate gods

Extensive Definition

Tritheism is the belief that there are three distinct, powerful gods, who form a triad. Generally three gods are envisaged as having separate powers and separate supreme beings or spheres of influence but working together. In this respect tritheism differs from dualism, which typically envisages two opposed Divine powers in conflict with one another.
Ironically, there is no group that claims to believe in or teach tritheism; the term is solely used as an accusation against others, somewhat similar to the usage of the word cult, in accusing a group of holding an alternate or distorted view of the Christian doctrine of Trinity. The main branches consider tritheism heretical.

Monistic tritheism

The Hindu Trinity of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer has also been said to constitute a Tritheistic belief system. Like the Christian Trinity, these beings are understood to work ultimately in harmony with one another, but this Hindu trinity does not have doctrinal status as in trinitarian Christianity, but is posited as simply one of many ways in which the Divine order of the universe may be understood.

Monotheistic tritheism

Muslims, Unitarians and other nontrinitarians claim the superficially comparable orthodox trinitarian Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as distinct form Tritheism, since these distinct "personalities" seem to act independently of one another, though not in conflict.
Proponents of trinitarianism claim that the three persons of the Trinity do not have separate powers, since they are omnipotent, and do not have separate spheres of influence, since their sphere of influence is unlimited. They argue that the persons of the Trinity have one divine essence and are indivisible, whereas Tritheism appears to suggest three separate gods. Athanasius (b. 298 A.D.) already attempted to distinguish Trinitarianism from Tritheism and Modalism.

Historical uses of the term in Christianity

The following tritheistic tendencies have been condemned as heretical by mainstream theology. At various times in the history of Christianity, various theologians were accused by the church of tritheism, which the church treated as heresy.
  1. Those who are usually meant by the name were a section of the Monophysites, who had great influence in the second half of the sixth century, but have left no traces save a few scanty notices in John of Ephesus, Photus, Leontius etc. Their founder is said to be a certain John Ascunages, head of a Sophist school at Antioch. The principal writer was John Philoponus, the great Aristotelean commentator; the leaders were two bishops, Conon of Tarsus and Eugenius of Seleucia in Isauria, who were deposed by their comprovincials and took refuge at Constantinople where they found a powerful convert and protector in Athanasius the Monk, a grandson of the Empress Theodora. Philoponus dedicated to him a book on the Trinity. The old philosopher pleaded his infirmities when he was summoned by the Emperor Justinian to the Court to give an account of his teaching. But Conon and Eugenius had to dispute in the reign of Justin II (565-78) in the presence of the Catholic patriarch John Scholasticus (565-77), with two champions of the moderate Monophysite party, Stephen and Paul, the latter afterwards Patriarch of Antioch. The Tritheist bishops refused to anathematize Philoponus, and brought proofs that he agreed with Severus and Theodosius. They were banished to Palestine, and Philoponus wrote a book against John Scholasticus, who had given his verdict in favour of his adversaries. But he developed a theory of his own as to the Resurrection (see Eutychianism) on account of which Conon and Eugenius wrote a treatise against him in collaboration with Themistus, the founder of the Agnoctae, in which they declared his views to be altogether unchristian. These two bishops and a deprived bishop named Theonas proceeded to consecrate bishops for their sect, which they established in Corinth and Athens, Rome, Northern Africa and the Western Patriarchate, while in the east agents travelled through Syria and Cilicia, Isauria and Cappadocia, converting whole districts and ordaining priests and deacons in cities villages and monasteries. Eugenius died in Pamphylia; Conon returned to Constantinople. Leontius assures that the Aristoteleanism of Philoponus made him teach that there are in the Holy Trinity three partial substances (merikai ousiai, ikikai theotetes, idiai physeis) and one common. The genesis of the doctrine has been explained (for the first time) under MONOPHYSITES, where an account of Philoponus's writings and those of Stephen Gobarus, another member of the sect, will be found.
  2. John Philoponus, an Aristotelian and monophysite in Alexandria about the middle of the sixth century, was charged with tritheism because he saw in the Trinity as separated three natures, substances and deities, according to the number of divine persons. He sought to justify this view by the Aristotelian categories of genus, species and individuum.
  3. In the Middle Ages Roscellin of Compiegne, the founder of Nominalism, who argued like Philoponus that unless the Three Persons are tres res, the whole Trinity must have been incarnate, was refuted by St. Anselm.
  4. Among Catholic writers, Pierre Faydit, who was expelled from the Oratory at Paris in 1671 for disobedience and died in 1709, practiced a form of Tritheism in his Eclaireissements sur la doctrine et Phistoire ecclésiastiqes des deux premiers siecles (Paris, 1696), in which he tried to make out that the earliest Fathers were Tritheists. He was replied to by the Premonstratensian Abbot Louis-Charles Hugo (Apologie du système des Saints Pères sur la Trinité, Luxemburg, 1699).
  5. A Catholic canon of Trier named Oembs, influenced by the doctrines of the "Enlightenment", similarly attributed to the Fathers his own view of three similar natures in the Trinity, calling the numerical unity of God an invention of the Scholastics. His book Opuscula de Deo Uno et Trino(Mainz, 1789), was condemned by Pius VII in a Brief of 14 July, 1804.
  6. The Bohemian Jesuit philosopher Anton Günther was also accused of Tritheism, leading to his work ending up on the Index librorum.
  7. Among Protestants, Heinrich Nicolai (d. 1660), a professor at Dantzig and at Elbing (not to be confounded with the founder of the Familisten), is cited.
  8. The best known in the Anglican Church is William Sherlock, Dean of St. Paul's, whose "Vindication of the Doctrine of the Holy and ever Blessed Trinity" (London, 1690) against the Socinians, maintaining that with the exception of a mutual consciousness of each other, which no created spirits can have, the three divine persons are "three distinct infinite minds" or "three intelligent beings.", was attacked by Robert South in "Animadversions on Dr. Sherlock's Vindication" (1693). Sherlock's work is said to have made William Manning a Socinian and Thomas Emlyn an Arian, and the dispute was ridiculed in a skit entitled "The Battle Royal", attributed to William Pittis (1694?), which was translated into Latin at Cambridge.
  9. Joseph Bingham, author of the "Antiquities", preached at Oxford in 1695 a sermon which was considered to represent the Fathers as Tritheists, and it was condemned by the Hebdomadal Council as falsa, impia et haeretica, the scholar being driven from Oxford.
  10. More recently Mormonism is described as tritheistic or polytheistic, by the standard of the trinitarianism of the ecumenical and catholic tradition, because it posits that the "Godhead" is a council of three distinct deities unified in purpose, but whose relationship to one another is unique; consequently there is no distinction between God's being (solitary, transcendent and eternal) in contrast to created being, as there is in mainstream Christianity.

Sources and references

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tritheism in German: Tritheismus
tritheism in Spanish: Triteísmo
tritheism in French: Trithéisme
tritheism in Polish: Tryteizm
tritheism in Russian: Тритеизм
tritheism in Finnish: Triteismi
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