Tritheism is the belief that cosmic divinity is composed of three powerful entities. As generally conceived, three gods are envisioned as having separate domains and spheres of influence that coalesce into an omnipotent whole. In this primary respect, tritheism differs from cosmic dualism, which often posits two divine powers working in theologic or spiritual opposition.
Most Christian denominations do not hold the universe as spiritually tritheistic, although some nontrinitarian denominations stray slightly from pure monotheism and the duality between God and Satan. The term has been sporadically used to spearhead heresy accusations, especially when employed against Christian sects promoting allegedly anathema conceptions of the Trinity.
The Hindu Trinity of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer have been held to constitute a Tritheistic belief system. Like the Christian Trinity, these entities are understood to interact harmoniously. However, this Hindu trinity is not conceived in a firmly doctrinal sense, but is rather posited as one of the ways in which the divine order of the universe can be understood. Ultimately, the Universal Spirit, the Param-atman, the Brahman (not to be confused with brahmin, a social class / caste), or Bhagvan is held to reign supreme as a singular entity.
Muslims, Jews and other nontrinitarians claim that the orthodox trinitarian Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit constitutes Tritheism, since these distinct "persons" are unified only by an impersonal substance ousia which does not transcend, or exist apart from, the persons.
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 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.
- 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, Photius, 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 Aristotelian 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 afterward 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 traveled 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 Aristotelianism 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.
- 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.
- In the Middle Ages, Roscellin of Compiegne, the founder of Nominalism, argued like Philoponus that unless the Three Persons are tres res (3 objects), the whole Trinity must have been incarnate. He was condemned of the heresy of tritheism at the 1092-1093 Council of Soissons presided over by Renaud du Bellay, archbishop of Rheims. Attempting to appeal to the authority of Lanfranc and Anselm, Roscellin prompted Anselm to write Cur Deus Homo and other treatments of the divine nature refuting his treatment. Roscellin publicly recanted and, after exile in England and Italy, reconciled himself to the church, but returned to a form of his earlier reasoning.
- 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).
- A prominent ideologue of Russian Old Believers and a writer, Avvakum (died 1682) was accused by official Orthodox Church and by fellow Old Believers in tritheism, based on some passages in his letters.
- 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.
- The Bohemian Jesuit philosopher Anton Günther was also accused of Tritheism, leading to his work ending up on the Index librorum.
- Among Protestants, Heinrich Nicolai (d. 1660), a professor at Dantzig and at Elbing (not to be confounded with the founder of Familia Caritatis), is cited.
- 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.
- 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.
- Though members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would probably not self-identify as tritheist, some critics of Mormonism claim that it is tritheistic or polytheistic because it teaches that the Godhead is a council of three distinct deities perfectly one in purpose, unity and mission, but nevertheless separate and distinct beings.
- Some have suggested that the Seventh-day Adventist Church has embraced a Trithiestic view of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as it does not see their singularity as a Godhead consisting in one being but rather as three separate beings in a single group.
- Chapman, John (1912). "Tritheists". The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company (public domain). Retrieved October 17, 2012.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Tritheists". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.