What is the “Godhead”?

Whenever you talk about the Trinity, one concept that is bound to come up is referred to as the “Godhead.” And…surprise, surprise…here we find yet another “essential” aspect of Christian theology that cannot be found in the Bible. Now I’m sure that fans of the King James Version (among others) will be quick to protest, but the point is simply this: even though the word “Godhead” appears in many of our English translations of the Bible, the historic concept of a “Godhead” is both glaringly absent from and indeed contrary to Scripture.

To be clear, if you assume that “Godhead” is merely a synonym for “God’s nature” or “God’s essence,” then there’s nothing particularly objectionable about the term; that being said, the notion of a “Godhead” has historically meant something much different. The concept of a “Godhead” is central to religious systems that are based upon a belief in emanationism, which Encyclopedia Britannica defines as a “philosophical and theological theory that sees all of creation as an unwilled, necessary, and spontaneous outflow of contingent beings of descending perfection—from an infinite, undiminished, unchanged primary substance.”

In other words, emanationism asserts that everything from angels to rocks has come into existence by virtue of being generated from a single, divine source; moreover, the emanations closest to the source are the “most divine” (like angels) whereas physical objects are generated by the emanations furthest from the source and therefore are the “least divine” (like rocks). Not only that, but a fundamental tenet of emanationism is that everything in the universe has always existed since every being and each object emanated spontaneously and necessarily from this eternal source. And over the centuries this universal source has been alternatively referred to as the “Monad,” the “Father,” the “One”…or the “Godhead.”

Thus at its core, the whole idea of a “Godhead” is inherently antithetical to Judeo-Christian doctrine, which declares that God spoke the universe into existence out of nothing and because He chose to do so, not because His essence couldn’t help but generate things as it filled the universe. Indeed, the belief in a “Godhead” is more akin to pantheism and Eastern religions than it is to Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, and it lies at the heart of Gnostic philosophies which clashed with the Apostolic church and subsequently influenced the heretical ideas of Marcion and Valentinus in the 2nd century AD.

The notion of the “Godhead” found its fullest expression, though, towards the middle of the 3rd century AD when the philosopher Plotinus postulated the “One” as the source of everything. According to Plotinus, the “One” emanated everything that exists, with the highest order emanation being the “divine mind” and the lowest order emanation being matter itself. There is much more that can be said about Plotinus’ philosophy, but perhaps the most significant aspect of his ideas is their timing. The debate around the Trinity was soon to reach its zenith on account of the heretical teaching of Arius of Alexander, and the parallels between Arianism and Plotinus are indeed striking. Arius effectively refers to the “One” as “Father,” and to the “divine mind” as “the Son” or “the Logos.” And just as the “divine mind” is the most divine entity in the universe aside from the “One,” so too is the “Son” slightly less divine than the “Father” from which He was begotten…

Thus despite the fact that the historic concept of a “Godhead” is at odds with the Judeo-Christian belief that an eternally self-existent, divine Being (i.e. God) created the universe as an act of His own will and in accordance with His purpose and design, the early church appropriated this anti-Biblical concept as the basis for explaining the Trinity nonetheless. What’s more, it’s clear that this understanding of the “Godhead” would have been well-known by the church fathers, so why did they adopt it in the first place? Good question. There is perhaps a better question, though, that is much easier to answer: what about the apparent Scriptural support for the usage of the term “Godhead”? I say “apparent,” because depending upon the translation of the Bible that you prefer it would seem to establish the legitimacy of a “Godhead”:

“Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead [Theion – divine nature or divine essence] is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.”

Acts 17:29

“For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead [Theiotes – deity manifested, a revelation of God (His attributes) which reveals Himself for people to know] so that they are without excuse.”

Romans 1:20

“For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead [Theotetos – deity] bodily.”

Colossians 2:9

These verses from the KJV are the three places in the New Testament where “Godhead” is found, and while they might appear to substantiate the validity of the “Godhead” as a Scriptural concept, it is worth noting that many of the more literal translations of the New Testament (NIV, NASB, ASV, ESV) don’t use the word “Godhead” at all. That’s because the three Greek words translated above as “Godhead” are all different forms of the root word theos, the Greek word for God, which many translations choose to render more literally as “divine” or “deity” rather than “Godhead.” Hence the reason that the term “Godhead” remains an accepted part of Christian parlance and orthodoxy even today – in spite of its historical baggage – probably owes more to the linguistic preferences of the authors of the KJV than to any actual, Biblical theology. (For further details, see noted scholar and theologian, B. B. Warfield’s article on the origins and meaning of the term Godhead.)

So where does this leave us? Shouldn’t the history of the “Godhead” preclude it from being part of Christian thought and doctrine by definition? And wouldn’t its demise likewise nullify the Trinity itself? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, but at a minimum, it certainly raises some additional red flags when you consider the dogmatic way in which the Trinity has been proclaimed and applied over the past two millennia. Because even though we may not think about “Godhead” today in light of its original context, the fact that the early church turned to this un-Biblical concept as a way to substantiate the Trinity – which itself cannot be explicitly found in Scripture – should make us stop and consider just how “essential” this whole doctrine really is.

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