The Trinity – Introduction

For the past couple of months I’ve been doing a good deal of thinking regarding two critical issues: 1) Is Jesus God and 2) which relates to the first, is the Trinity a valid conclusion based on NT teachings?

I’m under no delusion that this subject has been dealt with by far superior minds than mine. But my point and objective is not to deal with the topics in relation to those minds. My objective is to come to a satisfactory resolution of how I approach the subject in order to settle the issue in my mind. I have no desire to “compete” with others although I am attempting to learn and be challenged by their thoughts and teachings.

Having read several resources on the subject, I’ve come to an initial conclusion that their explanation of the subjects at hand are far from conclusive. In many regards, they serve only to use logic and texts that serve to confuse the issue and not clarify it.

The issues that nag me on these two topics are many. Here are just a few:

  • Why didn’t Jesus plainly state he was God? There were ample opportunities for such. The Gospel of John’s prologue certainly seem speak to the issue from John’s perspective, but not Christ’s.
  • Jesus is never referred to as “God the son” – but always as the “Son of God” or the “Son of Man” in the Gospels.
  • In the Gospels God does not refer to Jesus as other than His “beloved Son.”
  • The Apostles don’t seem to speak to the issue of the “trinity.”  There are references we’ll look at which seem to indicate a trinitarian view, but nothing is clearly stated for an issue that seems so central to the Christian faith.
  • Contrary views such as modalism seem to have merit based on what the scripture teaches but seem very threatening (viewed as heresy) to the idea of the trinity and I’m not sure I understand the threat.
  • How can Jesus be at the “right hand of God” and still be God? In other words, how can God be at the right hand of himself. This seems like such a paradox that needs more than a trite explanation.
  • Does believing in Christ mean one believes in him as God?  Or is it primarily believing in him as the Messiah?  This seems to me to be a crucial point in the discussion.
  • Do the references of Jesus as having been given power and authority from God necessitate his equality with God?
  • Having once determined the concept of the trinity – some three hundred years after the life and ministry of Christ – is it then fair to go back to the text and read that “understanding” into the text?
  • As noted earlier, John 1:1ff exposes John’s belief that Jesus is both transcendent and the mediator of creation. His statement that the Logos was God  and “He was in the beginning with God (v.2)” are strong indicators that either John saw Jesus as God or equal with God.  But then when we look at John’s stated purpose for penning the gospel it was so people would believe that “Jesus is the Christ, the son of God.”  Not God the son, not Jesus is God, but that Jesus is the Messiah, the very son of God.  Those indicators need to be reconciled.
  • Also in John, it is recorded that Thomas’s confession, when convinced of Jesus’ resurrection, responds with “My Lord and my God (2o:28).”   Does that statement mark a revelation that only Thomas had in using Lord and God as though they are equal?  Or was it simply an overwhelming admission of awe for the one raised from the dead?

I reckon this provides enough fodder for a beginning study of this topic. But it’s only the beginning.  In addition, it’s important to note again that this study is not about deep theological nuances that only the experts in Greek and those who have Doctor of Theology after their name can capture.  It’s about understanding scripture the way any common man would understand it using tools available to anyone anywhere. That does not mean I intend to dismiss the thoughts of the “specialists.” I simply intend to give them equal footing with those of us who must wrestle with the text to find its meaning.  Having said that, I’ll confess I strongly intend to pick the brain of my son in-law – who indeed has his doctorate and finds Trinitarianism one of his favorite topics.

I hope you’ll join me when you can and comment often.  Please be kind enough to check your preconceived notions at the door and let the text and the evidence speak for itself.

Advertisements

5 Comments

Filed under Bible, Bible Study, Faith, God, God the Father, God's Word, Gospel of John, Gospels, Jesus Christ, scripture

5 responses to “The Trinity – Introduction

  1. Joud

    Dear Sir, I must admit that you raise interesting questions, however I am not of the Christian faith to be able to discuss your points from the Christian point of view. If you are interested I can tell you the Islamic point of view. If you are not interested please stop reading now.

    Jesus was a messenger just like Muhammad was.
    Jesus was miraculously conceived by the virgin Mary, as was Adam miraculously made from no father or mother, but that does not mean in Islam that GOD is his father.
    Jesus did perform miracles and he did raise the dead and so on.
    Jesus is one of our prophets as well, and if a Muslim does not believe in Jesus as a prophet he can’t call himself a Muslim.
    I hope I didn’t offend you by stating that to us Jesus is not GOD or the son of GOD, I simply wanted to point out similarities and differences as I did with my earlier comment.
    I would again recommend “The Cross and the Crescent” by Dirks, a former ordained minister (deacon) in the United Methodist Church and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School.

    Like

  2. Ben

    Norm, thanks for your honesty and willingness to think through these issues out loud on your blog. These are core issues, and I think that a return to the biblical text is always a good step. While I respect the Muslim faith, Joud’s comment shows that the Christian affirmation of Jesus (and the Spirit) as God is what serves as the basis of our faith. With my interest in historical theology, it is important to note that throughout the church’s history, many ideas have come and gone but to be a member of any orthodox community one has always had to affirm the Trinity, which is why we baptize people in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus it is not only my personal belief that the Trinity is fundamental to our faith, but it is the church’s belief–the church’s creed.

    My fundamental question for you is this: What are the implications of affirming a doctrine but saying that the Bible doesn’t teach it? If you are saying that Jesus is God, but the NT doesn’t really teach it, then what is the basis of theology for the church if it is not based in the Bible? I don’t think we can naively read the Bible as a systematic theology (in fact I think interpretation of the Bible can be a difficult task as I’ll note in a comment on your next post), but I do think that the core of our theology must be firmly drawn from the text. Does that mean that the apostles and gospel writers thought about the Trinity as we do today? No, but it does mean that they thought Trinitarianly: When they thought about God’s action in the world, they thought of it in terms of Father, Son and Spirit. They thought more in terms of the ‘economic’ Trinity (God acting in a unified threeness) rather than the ‘imminent’ Trinity (God’s oneness expressed in intra-Trinitarian relationship). I believe you rightly want to focus on the former as the focus of your discussions here. (However, a thought occurred to me regarding your distinction between ‘the son of God’ and ‘God the Son’. If we think in terms of the economic Trinity, would it have even made sense to talk about ‘God the Son’? That kind of language appears to focus more on the immanent Trinity, which we only have access to through the economic Trinity. I’ll have to think about that a little more, though.)

    I have a couple of quick questions/issues to raise.
    First, you make it seem like the Trinity was a theological development 300 years later. Outside the biblical witness, the affirmation of Jesus as God was one of the earliest doctrines that orthodox Christianity held, and as I noted in my email the rule of faith in Irenaeus’ Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching (c. AD 180) clearly shows a Trinitarian formulation as the core of the Christian faith. So, the ‘300 years later’ associated with the Nicene Creed biases the evidence a little too much. Also, I’ll point you and your readers to Craig Blaisings article “Creedal Formulation as Hermeneutical Development: A Re-Examination of the Nicene Creed”. Pro Ecclesia 19 (2010): 371–88. He demonstrates that the formulation of the creed was specifically a reading and affirmation of biblical texts rather than a doctrine imposed on the Bible.

    Second, I’m not clear how your reading of the NT both affirms a firm distinction between Jesus and God the Father and at the same time can be amenable to modalism which collapses Jesus and the Father into one person with just two different names. You reading of the text emphasizes the different persons, and so modalism would be excluded from your reading.

    I hope I don’t come off as argumentative because I think the whole process of question and discussion is quite fruitful. I know I’ve already thought of new ways of approaching the text because of your comments, so I look forward to your further posts.

    Thanks,
    Ben

    Like

  3. Norm

    Thanks for your comments Ben. They certainly extend the issue in several directions that will stretch my simple mind.

    To some degree you express what I believe to be a fundamental issue regarding the topic of the Trinity – convoluted. I don’t say that with any disrespect, I simply note it as something that contributes to the inability to express the doctrine with certainty when it comes to the text and average folks like me who hope to both understand it and explain it unless you simply surrender to the doctrine. Here’s an example:

    “Does that mean that the apostles and gospel writers thought about the Trinity as we do today? No, but it does mean that they thought Trinitarianly: When they thought about God’s action in the world, they thought of it in terms of Father, Son and Spirit. They thought more in terms of the ‘economic’ Trinity (God acting in a unified threeness) rather than the ‘imminent’ Trinity (God’s oneness expressed in intra-Trinitarian relationship).”

    “God acting in unified threeness” seems to me a perfectly satisfactory approach to the the idea of the Trinity. But then again, the relationship between those three becomes a central issue of the biblical text. It seems the Father has authority over the Son and the Holy Spirit serves both the Father and the Son. Now that’s an oversimplification, but it does seem verifiable to some degree.

    Your comment about the formulation of the Nicene Creed is duly noted. I suppose I got a bit myopic when it came to that point of history.

    I’m going to spend some time with your comments. I also know you have a lot on your plate right now with the move, the new job and getting settled in a new “country.” So I very much appreciate your taking time to offer your thoughts.

    Like

  4. Ben

    On the issue of being convoluted, I’m sure your not the only person who will charge me with that over my career, but it appears that you are searching for a bit of precision in the biblical text that is not accessible. Let me give an illustration. Does some have to have 100% understanding of how a car runs in order to drive the car? No they just have to have a key that starts it. That key is our faith, and the inner workings of the car is God. How can you simply or precisely describe the God represented in a collection of texts thousands of years old? To draw it even more close to a ‘living’ illustration, can you describe to me what a human is in a non-convoluted way? There are hundreds of ways to approach describing humans, and some are more simplistic than others but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an almost infinite depth than can be explored. How much more is God’s infinite nature beyond our understanding.

    This may seem like a cop out to play the mystery card, but think of the major doctrines of the faith, such as the virgin birth or scripture as the word of God. Both of these require a fully-human and fully-divine action, but how do we explain this? Where are these so simply and precisely described in scripture in a way that you seem to want? Yes, we can affirm them from scripture, but they are fundamentally a mystery that we affirm but also allow and encourage further thinking to spell these out for the theology of the church.

    Throughout history of the church there have been different models that are within in the bounds of orthodoxy. Some have focused on the oneness of God, whereas others have focused on the threeness. In a stereotypical fashion the former is associated with the Latin church (Catholic and Protestant), whereas the latter is associated with the Greek church (Eastern Orthodox). The EO happily speak of different roles in the Trinity as you describe them, most particularly because they are from the biblical text. What we know about the Father is that he is Father, the unbegotten. What we know about the Son is that he is the Son, the ‘only-begotten’. What we know about the Spirit is that he proceeds from the Father [but not the Son, as the EO deny this].

    This then raises the question about which model of the Trinity are you responding to? If it is a more Latin-ized version, perhaps you would find people like the Vladimir Lossky book I recommended more amenable to your liking.

    Cheers,
    Ben

    Like

  5. Norm

    I suppose “certainty” was a bad choice of words as was “convoluted.” An issue that I’m sure will surface many times during this series. Since I have been recently reading Augustine’s comments on the Trinity, which had my head spinning, I expect that spawned my word choice.

    Regarding your analogy of the car – what you say is true. Sounds very much like the old “chair/faith” analogy. However, we have more “evidence” of the virgin birth and the resurrection – as it is fleshed out in scripture, however incomplete, than it seems we have of the Trinity. Pulling the idea of the Trinity out of the text seems difficult and challenging when – as with the virgin birth and the resurrection – each of the Gospel writers could have certainly made a case for the three-in-one concept.

    Note: Since we have a bond that is different than anyone who might comment on this topic through this blog, let’s agree all that is said is said with love and respect for one another. Words or phrases on a screen are susceptible to misunderstanding so I will try and be very careful. 🙂

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s