Letter to Titus

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)

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…)

Teleology Between Christians and Historians

Teleology is both the hope of Christians and the bane of historians.  As a professional historian, I have publicly railed against teleology for the edification of my students.  As a practicing Christian, I have publicly thanked God for his teleology and used it to comfort those who are hurting.  That sure looks like a contradiction.  It struck me as odd recently, as I was buried under a mountain of undergraduate papers and final exams to grade.  I don’t think it’s a contradiction, but exploring why not has clarified for me what historians are trying to accomplish, and the basis on which Christians formulate their understandings. (more…)

A Tale of Two Priesthoods

It is often claimed that one insuperable difference between Protestants and Catholics is that Protestants, since Luther, believe in the priesthood of all believers, while Catholics believe Christians need a priest to bring them to God.  Today this is usually a Protestant accusation against Catholics, although in the sixteenth century Luther’s notion of the priesthood of all believers, including illiterate and semi-literate peasants, did come in for a certain amount of ridicule from some of the more educated members of the clergy.  Some of the wilder branches of Protestantism have gone further than Luther, even rejecting, on the claimed basis of the “priesthood of all believers,” any ordained clergy whatsoever (this includes the Plymouth Brethren and the Quakers), while many “Bible-believing” Protestants draw a sharp distinction between Roman Catholic priests and their own pastors or elders.  As with so many things, however, the disagreement between the denominations over the scope of the priesthood is based more on an argument over words than over the substance of what the Bible says.  There are substantive disagreements in Roman Catholic and various Protestant understandings of priesthood(s), but the “argument” over the priesthood or not of all believers can safely be put down to a deficiency of northern European languages like English, which have one word where Greek has two, and a desire on both sides of the argument to affirm the superiority of their group over those who disagree with them.

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“You’re Doing Nothing, God”

Sometimes, you’re reading the Bible and skimming along in a familiar story, and then STOP.  SOMETHING has caught your attention, which you’ve never noticed before.  This was one of those moments.

The story of the exodus is familiar enough to me and to most: Moses is sent by God (after some initial reluctance) to Egypt to lead the Israelites out of Egypt to Canaan.  The elders really like the idea – being slaves of the Egyptians kinda sucks, even after they repealed the infanticide law – but the Pharaoh takes a dim view of the enterprise.  In response, the Pharaoh makes it so that being slaves of the Egyptians really sucks, and the Israelites take a short-sighted view of the case and complain about Moses stirring up trouble.  But God stirs up a whole lot more trouble for the Pharaoh, a lot of people die, and eventually the Israelites leave Egypt not only with the Pharaoh’s permission but with his, uh, you might say, encouragement.  But then he changes his mind and drowns in the Red Sea chasing after the Israelites to re-enslave them.  Moses, throughout, was the unflappable spokesman for God.  Or was he? (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…)