Author: theophiletos

The Trinity and Us

Now that I have written five thousand words about why I think the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is a true and biblical description of the One God, someone might wish to ask me, “What difference does it make?”  Sure, traditional Christian orthodoxy (held today by evangelical and conservative Protestants of all denominations, traditional Roman Catholics, and most Eastern and Oriental Orthodox) believes in the Trinity, while Oneness Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians, liberals (both Protestant and Roman Catholic), and Muslims do not.  But is that just an interesting and incidental detail, along the lines of different traditions of church decoration?  Or is it relevant to how Christians live out their faith in practice?  Does this Trinitarian theology matter?

I think it does matter, and it matters a lot.  Now, I will readily grant up front that it does not seem to matter to many Christians, who live out their lives with scarcely a thought regarding Trinitarian vs. Unitarian doctrine.  But I think it does matter, and ought to matter a great deal to Christian life and faith. (more…)

Biblical Approaches to the Trinity 3: Figuring It Out

This is the third post in a series.  Read the first post here and the second here.

Does the Bible teach that God is Trinity?  While the word “Trinity” does not occur in the Bible, we have discussed how the Old Testament presents God as united and unique, but it also hints at something more about God.  Jesus, a devout Jew, affirmed the unity and uniqueness of God, but he also claimed for himself divine authority, roles, attributes, and prerogatives on the basis of his unique unity with the Father, whom he identified as the God of Israel (John 8:54).  How did Christians get from there to the Trinity?  And what do Christians mean by the Trinity anyway?

The Apostles on God and Jesus

Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would bring to the mind of his followers everything he had said to them (John 14:26), and the earliest Christians certainly collected what they remembered Jesus as saying and reflected on it.  But the apostles were not primarily philosophical theologians coining new jargon for church doctrine; they were far more concerned with proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus and setting up churches to carry on the message after them.  They were also limited people like us, not understanding God fully and growing over time in their knowledge of him (John 2:22; 12:16), even while struggling with doubts (Matthew 28:17).  (I do believe, however, that what they wrote on the subject which made it into the Bible was divinely inspired!)  So the apostles certainly did not use the word “Trinity.”  But they did worship Jesus (Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:52), a divine prerogative which mere humans and even angels were required to reject (Acts 10:25-26; 14:14-15; Revelation 22:8-9).  Worshiping anything other than God would break the very first of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3), so clearly the apostles believed that Jesus deserved divine honor.

The apostles, all of whom were devout Jews, believed that the God of Israel was the only true God.  Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, “We know that ‘An idol is nothing at all in the world’ and that ‘There is no God but one.'” (1 Corinthians 8:4; cf. Romans 3:30).  Earlier, he and Barnabas had contrasted the “worthless things” of sacrifices to Zeus with “the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them” (Acts 14:15).  James affirmed that God’s oneness is so incontrovertible that even demons acknowledge it (James 2:19).  John ended his first letter with a closing warning: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).  So the apostles did not believe that worshiping Jesus contradicted their monotheistic belief.  It did lead to some puzzles.

The apostles experimented with what to call Jesus in relation to God.  They called him God’s Servant (Acts 3:13; 4:27), God’s Messiah (i.e. “Christ”: Luke 9:20; Acts 2:36; 3:18; 1 Corinthians 3:23), God’s Son (Mark 1:1; Romans 1:4; 1 John 5:20).  All of these are correct.  These same apostles were even increasingly comfortable explicitly calling Jesus himself “God,” starting very early.  Already one week after the resurrection, when the apostle Thomas faced the risen Jesus, he called him, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).  Paul wrote to the Romans that Jesus Christ “is God over all, forever praised!” (Romans 9:5).  To the Christians in Philippi, Paul described Jesus before his birth as “being in the form of (i.e. as) God” who possessed “equality with God” (Philippians 2:6).  Writing to his friend Titus, Paul spoke of the expected return of “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).  Peter likewise opened his second letter by appealing to “the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” which gives faith to Christians (2 Peter 1:1).  Finally, and most famously, John penned the opening lines of his gospel about Jesus as God’s Word, using phrases which evoke the opening of Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1; cf. 1:18).

So the apostles did not use the term “Trinity” and did not work out a detailed philosophical explanation, but they believed that there is only one living God, the creator of all things and the God of Israel, and yet they worshiped Jesus and were willing to call Jesus “God’s Son” and even explicitly “God.”

Good Theories and Bad

Some Christians after the apostles had a bit more time on their hands and a desire for philosophical consistency, and were inclined to ask nosy questions and suggest possible answers.  (I might be one of these.)  The question arose, “How can God be the Father of Jesus, and Jesus also be God, and yet there be only one God?”  Various answers were suggested.  Some people had the idea that maybe Jesus was just a man, yet God adopted him, so Jesus was called “God” by courtesy, or like a family name (a viewpoint called, unsurprisingly, “adoptionism,” and believed again today by various liberal groups suspicious of supernaturalism).  Others suggested that there was only one God, but sometimes he acted in the role of Father and sometimes in the role of Son (which we label “modalism” or “Sabellianism” and which is held by Oneness Pentecostals today).  Yet others proposed that Jesus was more than a mere human, and was the first created thing, through whom all else was created, and is called “God” as a form of honor (this position, accepted by Jehovah’s Witnesses today, is “Arianism,” not to be confused with “Aryanism“).

Each of these viewpoints was considered and rejected by the majority of ancient Christian leaders, as incompatible with one or another aspect of God’s revelation in the Bible.  Adoptionism runs afoul of what God said to Isaiah: “I will not give my glory to another” (Isaiah 48:11).  It seems to counter Jesus claiming to exist before Abraham’s birth (John 8:58) and Paul speaking of Jesus, before his birth, as “being in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6).  Modalism satisfies those passages, but how can that theory explain the baptism of Christ, where a voice from God the Father spoke and sent down the Holy Spirit like a dove upon Jesus being baptized (Matthew 3:16-17)?  According to a modalist view, the many times that Jesus said, “My Father sent me” (fourteen times in John) would all reduce to “I sent myself in a different costume,” and that does not seem to make sense.  Arianism preserves the different actors in the interactions between Jesus and God the Father, and allows for Jesus speaking of his existence before Abraham’s birth two millennia earlier, but how then could Paul worship and serve Jesus, when he condemned people who “exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised” (Romans 1:25)?  Arianism also founders on God’s statement to Isaiah cited above, that he would not give another his glory, which is no doubt why Jehovah’s Witnesses carefully mistranslate the passages cited above in which the apostles called Jesus “God.”

Instead of these faulty explanations, ancient Christian leaders, and their successors and followers to the present, identified a few key necessary ideas, hinted at in the Old Testament, claimed by Jesus, and held by the apostles.  There is in fact only one God, and no created being can be called God.  Jesus’s Father is God.  Jesus is God.  Jesus is not his own Father.  But there is more.

And the Holy Spirit, Too!

The Old Testament had mentioned God’s Spirit already in the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:2), and had referenced God’s Spirit performing divine actions, such as inspiring prophets.  Jesus had promised his close followers that after his departure, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17).  The fact that the Spirit is another, suggests that in some sense the Spirit is the same sort of thing that Jesus is.  After rising from the dead, Jesus commanded his followers to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), suggesting a shared authority among the three named persons.  Indeed, although “Spirit” is technically a neuter noun in Greek (an “it”), Jesus chose to refer to the Holy Spirit as “he” and “him” (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7-8, 13-14) instead of what would be expected and considered non-offensive, “it.”  Perhaps the grammar was making a point.

The apostles likewise spoke of the Holy Spirit frequently, often in the same breath with God and Jesus (Acts 10:38; Romans 15:30; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Ephesians 1:17; Philippians 3:3; 1 Peter 1:2).  Peter rebuked a couple for having “lied to the Holy Spirit,” which he described as having “not lied just to human beings but to God” (Acts 5:3-4); this may hint that the Spirit is also God.  Paul, speaking of the variety of spiritual gifts, nevertheless emphasizes the unity of “the same Spirit… the same Lord… the same God at work” in the different spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).

Later Christians puzzled about the Holy Spirit for even longer than they puzzled about Jesus.  Some suggested that God’s Spirit is another way of saying “God” (but this runs into the same trouble as modalism when God sends his Spirit).  Others concluded that the “Spirit of God” was another way to refer to Jesus (but then how can Jesus describe the Spirit as “another advocate”?).  Yet others seem to have argued that the Spirit of God was just not God, but instead someone created by Jesus (this is the view ascribed to the “Pneumatomakhoi,” those who “fight against the Spirit”) – but in this case how could a mere creature know all the depths of God (1 Corinthians 2:10-11)?  In the face of these explanatory failures, Christians eventually came to the view that there is still only one God, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father nor the Son, but is the same God as the Father and the Son.

The Oneness and Three-ness of God

The conclusion of the long process of early Christians figuring out what they believed about God, Jesus, and the Spirit, can perhaps most briefly be summed up in the words of the Athanasian Creed: “the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet they are not three Gods, but one God.”  Christians have continued to insist that there is only one true God, and yet the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit are three distinct individuals who are jointly the same God.  The Old Testament’s hints about God’s complex oneness, Jesus’s claims to full participation in divine unity without singleness, and the apostles’ appropriation of Jesus’s claims and their implications that he and the Spirit are “also God,” together force Christians to recognize that there is not only a oneness about God, but there is also a certain “three-ness” to the one and only God.  The Latin word for “three-ness” is trinitas, from which English gets the word Trinity.

So when critics say the “Trinity” is not in the Bible, they are right about words but wrong about meaning.  It is true that the word “trinity” is not to be found there.  But as we have observed, it is possible for the reality described by the word to be expressed even without using the word.  The notion of God’s “three-ness” (trinitas) is an attempt to understand and synthesize what the Bible teaches about God’s complex unity, and about the simultaneous divinity and distinction of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Corinthians 13:14)

Biblical Approaches to the Trinity 2: What Jesus Said

This is the second post in a series.  Read the first post here.

Is the Trinity in the Bible?  The Christian doctrine of the Trinity asserts that Jesus Christ is the second divine person, God the Son.  So if the idea of the Trinity is anywhere, we should find it in the words and actions of Jesus.  What did Jesus say about the whether or not he was God? (more…)

Biblical Approaches to the Trinity 1: The Old Testament

Is the Trinity in the Bible?  I have talked with Jews, Muslims, atheists, and even some Christians who say no.  Recently I had the privilege of discussing the issue with an ex-Muslim and with a Jehovah’s Witness, who have prompted me to revisit the issue here.  Of course I admit that the word “Trinity” nowhere occurs in the inspired text of the Bible.  But the lack of a word does not mean the absence of the reality to which that word refers.  The word “omnipresent” is also not to be found in Scripture, but the idea of God’s omnipresence is clearly taught there (e.g. 1 Kings 8:27; Psalm 139:7-12).  Like God’s omnipresence, we need to explore what the Bible actually teaches about God’s oneness, and then consider what to call it. (more…)

Biblical Authority: Yes! Sola Scriptura? Maybe.

The Bible is amazing.  The God who created all the universe and each tiny flower in a mountain meadow decided to communicate with people in their own language, and to inspire people to write it down for future generations to read!  Even the Bible talks about about invaluable and awe-inspiring the Scripture is.  God gave the law through Moses, and after he re-hashed it all to the Israelites in the plain of Moab (Deuteronomy means “second [statement of the] law”), Moses said, “They are not just idle words for you—they are your life” (Deut 32:47).  God spoke through Isaiah, “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word” (Isaiah 66:2).  When Jesus quoted a difficult passage of the psalms, he parenthetically remarked, “And the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).  The Bible is fully authoritative, life-giving, and amazingly clear (indeed, often far too clear for our comfortable self-deceptions).  I do not think we can speak highly enough of God’s gracious gift of Scripture.  But it is possible to speak inaccurately of it.

“Sola Scriptura” is one of the five Reformation “solas” (the plural ought to be solae, or rather soli, since one of them is masculine).  It is called the “formal principle” of the Reformation, meaning what distinguishes Protestant theology’s method from the theology of Roman Catholics.  But “sola Scriptura” has come to mean many different things to different people.  It seems to me that some of these meanings are true, but some of them are false.  We must evaluate these meanings in turn. (more…)

A Tale of Two Creations?

Are there two creation stories in the book of Genesis?  This has long been a viewpoint espoused by many Old Testament scholars, but is finding increasing popularity among non-scholars as well.  Moreover, it is increasingly believed that the alleged two stories are mutually contradictory, that they cannot both be true.  While there are some other parts of the Bible that I cannot explain, I do think the “two creations” interpretation of the beginning of Genesis is clearly false. (more…)

The Plausibility Divide

Earlier today President Trump used Twitter to accuse President Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower in the month leading up to the election.  This accusation is shocking, but for different reasons to different people.  Some people are outraged at how the previous president misused his power against the American people.  Others are outraged at how the current president is misusing his power against the democratic system.  These two groups are divided by divergent ideas of what is plausible, and shocking claims like this leverage the plausibility gap to make American society even more polarized. (more…)

Even When Enemies are Muslim, “Muslims” are not the Enemy!

A friend asked me a bit ago whether my day job (trying to understand the Middle East, including Islam and Muslims) wasn’t counterproductive for me as a Bible-believing Christian, or whether it was an attempt to “know the enemy.”  In truth, it is neither.  Of course, I believe that Christians should explore all fields of knowledge to understand the world in the light of God’s revelation.  But I also do not think of Muslims as “the enemy.”  Since this latter point is apparently highly contentious at the present among conservative Christians, I thought it might be useful for me to explain my reasoning. (more…)

How the Trump-News Feud Hurts America

Everyone who reads the news, or only the President’s twitter feed, knows that there is a major feud between the occupant of the Oval Office and the editors of every mainstream news organization in this country.  In a tweet, President Trump even declared the press:

“Fake news,” of course, was originally the battle-cry of the mainstream media against alternative sites such as the pro-Trump Breitbart news, a weapon which Trump has now turned on its makers.  But the mainstream media is not above the fray: major news outlets have consistently offered the reporting to support Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategy that Donald Trump is unfit for the presidency, even a month after his inauguration.

In a recent press conference (which the news media reported was 77 minutes long!) President Trump mentioned that he was enjoying the give and take with the news media, even as he expected them to publish that he was “ranting” (which the media duly characterized him as doing).  It does not surprise me, given what we know of the president’s career and conversational style, that he enjoys some conflict and competion.  And he probably knows that his public feud with the media is good for keeping his name on the front page: this is apparently no presidency to become “boring.”  It probably even helps the mainstream media with page views, even as it panders to Trump’s political supporters (a smaller group than those who voted for him).  So it’s a win-win situation, right?

The only problem is that it is bad for America as a whole. (more…)

The Forgotten Art of Civil Discourse

I haven’t blogged in a while, largely because I have been busy with other things, but I have been watching US politics rather more than previously, and not liking what I am seeing.  The polarization of the two-party system has been expressed in isolated discourses with minimal cross-over, in which vocal members of each group express outrage and ridicule at the other group’s viewpoints, mock the appearance of representatives of the other group, engage in ad hominem (and ad familiam) attacks, and do all this while expressing outrage that members of the other group should treat them in the same discourteous manner.  Civility seems to be nearly extinct.  If the American way of government is to be saved, and I must admit great appreciation of the freedoms to which we have grown accustomed, we must reclaim civil discourse, not only in the sense of discourse about issues related to the civilian society, but also discourse which is civil in tone, even when disagreeing strongly. (more…)