apostles

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…)

Basic Ecclesiology 2: Jesus

If, as I argued before, the Greek word ekklesia just means a gathering, then what makes an ekklesia into the Christian Church?

Being an adult convert, I never actually went to Sunday School, but I am told that there is often a single answer that works for every question.  I enjoy a little joke which plays on this observation: A new Sunday School teacher comes and tries to start his relationship with the class to a good start, and so asks a simple question: “What’s gray, runs in trees, eats nuts, and has a large bushy tail?”  No student raises a hand, but one girl in front has a big frown on her face.  The new teacher asks her, “What’s wrong?” and receives the reply, “I know the answer’s Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel!”

It is not a squirrel which makes a gathering into the Church (except perhaps sometimes); the Sunday School answer is correct.  It is obvious, and true: Jesus Christ is what makes a gathering into the Christian Church. (more…)

A Starting Point for Practical Ecumenism

In response to my long essay about the similarity, or lack thereof, between the earliest Christians and various denominations today, one commentator, Anna, offered insights which can jump-start practical ecumenical discussion among Christians.  In her first comment, she opened the door to a principled ecumenism with a rejection of the extremes, both of judgmental conservatism and of mindless liberalism:

But I would like to suggest that there is a middle ground in between “you’re going to hell” and “all paths are equal”. The middle route says, “Yes, it does matter; but you’re not screwed if you get it wrong.”

She then established the value of ecumenical contact among Christians by pointing out how great it would be if we all took upon ourselves what each denomination does well: (more…)

Discomfort and Redemption

A year ago my wife and I moved to a cheap apartment in the next town over.  We did a lot of research, and had a number of distinct requirements.  Among them we were concerned about pests (we’ve had bad experiences before) and cigarette smoke (my wife is allergic).  We settled on one apartment, and then its current occupants decided not to move out, so we found two other options in the same building.  They had the same floor plan, but one faced the parking lot and the other a golf course.  Since we love green, we settled on the one overlooking the golf course.  I asked about pests and was assured there was no history of pest-related service requests.  Then when I brought my wife for the sniff test (her nose is much keener than mine), we smelled cigarette smoke. (more…)

The Argument from (Dis-)Similarity

Will the real Church please stand up?  Go to a phone directory of any moderately sized settlement and see if the listings for “churches” don’t rapidly get bewildering.  Indeed, such an exercise is often an education into varieties of Christianity we didn’t know existed!  How should those who worship Christ sort through this denominational chaos?

One method frequently suggested by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Disciples of Christ (along with a few Baptists, on occasion) is to look at the evidence for early Christianity and see which contemporary denomination is most similar to the churches of the apostles and their successors.  This is the argument from similarity.  I recently read a blog post making this argument against Protestants of all stripes, and a commentator here pressed me to consider the same line of reasoning.  It was not the first time.  I have heard this argument made in favor of multiple different branches of contemporary Christianity.  I like to imagine the question by asking which church would look most familiar to the apostle Peter or any of the other earliest Christians, if he were sent on a time-travel expedition from AD 60 to the present.  I prefer someone else to Jesus for this exercise because Jesus is the God who knows the hearts, and this is usually posed as a question about external appearances. (more…)

“All Things are Yours”

After the divergence of Christian denominations, important spiritual writers were located in different branches.  I think of Brother Lawrence among the Roman Catholics, John Bunyan among the English non-conformists, Fyodor Dostoevsky among the Russian Orthodox, more recently C. S. Lewis among the Anglicans, and Billy Graham among American Evangelicals.  But when people of another denomination read and cite with approval such a writer, members of that writer’s own denomination sometimes object to what feels like poaching.  Surely, the sentiment may be expressed, that writer is “ours”; what write have “you” to appropriate him?  Indeed, some Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox feel that way even about writers from before the schism.  I have heard Eastern Orthodox Christians object to any “Western Christian” (Roman Catholic or Protestant) claiming Athanasius or the Cappadocians, and I have heard Roman Catholics object to members of other churches citing Aquinas or Gregory the Great.  Is there any legitimacy to this objection?

The short answer is “no.”

The present is not the first time that Christians have fought over names.  Already in Corinth in the middle of the first century, Christians were claiming to belong to different denominations, whether Peter’s, Paul’s, Apollos’s, or Christ’s (1 Cor 1:11-12).  (It is unclear whether this last group were claiming to be mere Christians, including the others, or holier-than-thou, excluding all the others.)  Among Paul’s many responses to this sorry state of affairs is the following gem:

So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas [Peter] or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.” (1 Cor 3:21-23, NASB)

All those, then, who belong to Christ may rightly claim and profit from all those who have gone before.  I am a late-comer to Christ, I know, but even so my heritage includes Moses and all the prophets, all the apostles, the early Christian writers, the medieval Christian writers of East and West (and of whatever language, whether Latin, Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, or any other), the early modern reformers (such as Erasmus and Luther) and mystics (such as Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross), and modern thinkers and activists (such as Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr.).  We have this great shared heritage, because it is Christ’s “inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18) and we are “joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17).  Let us all, then, profit from the riches of that heritage and be prompted by it to fulfill the New Command of our Lord: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, NASB)