Thoughts About the Trinity

The doctrine of the Trinity is hard to teach, because there are so many ancient heresies to guard against and because, well … it’s complicated. But, the Scriptures present God as triune. That means we need to teach about Him. We need to teach Christians to know Him and love Him as He is; and He’s triune.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the doctrine of the Trinity; probably more than most pastors. That, and Christology, are my own hobby horses. Some people find joy in making complicated end-times charts. Others find fulfillment in being a Baptist fundamentalist. Still other Christians find their religious self-identity in a particular view of the doctrine of salvation. I like to study about who God is, and how He’s revealed Himself.

I just finished Millard Erickson’s God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity. It’s a very good book, but probably not the most engaging thing for the “average” Christian to read. It presupposes a lot of theological training. Erickson’s book is one of the most helpful works on the Trinity I’ve read. On balance, I’d say Carl Beckwith’s The Holy Trinity may have had a more formative influence on me, but this might be because I read it first. Beckwith is a good Lutheran, and Erickson is a irenic conservative Baptist, but they’ve both produced very fine works on this most important of doctrines.

As I think on the doctrine now, here is a non-exhaustive list of things (in no particular order) I think need to be emphasized if one wishes to teach the Trinity in a comprehensive way.

1: The “three foundations” James White mentioned in his excellent book The Forgotten Trinity

  • Monotheism; there is only one God
  • There are three divine persons
  • Each person is co-equal and co-eternal

I think the best way to do this is to walk through several passages of Scripture that support each foundation. The trick is to be comprehensive without being exhaustive.

2: The definitions of “Being” and “Person”

Both these terms have baggage, and were fought over during the Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries. We need to consider how the great creeds seem to use these terms, but we shouldn’t be slaves to, for example, 4th century expressions of theological categories. In other words, just because the 4th century creeds may not have intended to convey a more modern concept of “personhood” which includes self-consciousness, this does not mean this modern definition of “personhood” is wrong!

The terms “being” and “person” are good; but their proper definitions must always comport with Scripture. I am concerned with a kind of rote confessionalism that encourages an almost slavish devotion to old formulations of eternal doctrine. This isn’t a call to jettison historical theology; it’s simply a call to not be a slave to it.

3: The Trinity as a society of persons

This is Erickson’s term, and I like it. He wrote, “The Godhead is a complex of persons. Love exists within the Godhead as a binding relationship of each of the persons to each of the others,” (221). He explained:

… the fundamental characteristic of the universe is personal … The supreme person is indeed a person, with identity, thought, will and personality, with whom it is possible to have a relationship, conscious to both parties. This supreme being, however, was not content to remain solitary. He acted to create reality external to himself. This involved the creation of the material universe and all physical objects within it. It also involved bringing into existence other selves besides himself. These persons, to a large extent, exist for relationship with the creating and originating God. If, then, the most significant members of the creation are persons in relationship, then reality is primarily social. This means that the most powerful binding force in the universe is love.

Erickson, God in Three Persons, 220-221.

This is good, but I think he could have brought more of the holiness attribute into play. God’s love is defined by His holiness. It doesn’t exist apart from it. I buy that God didn’t have to create creation (and, particularly, human beings), so clearly He desired worship and social interaction, so clearly He is social.

But, is “love” the best way to get this across? Probably. I struggle to express this without having to toss in caveats about how this isn’t narcissism on God’s part. He didn’t want us because of who we are; He wants us to worship Him because of who He is. In other words, we aren’t doing God any favors by being believers! God isn’t a harried middle-manager who’s “so happy to have us on the team,” so to speak.

4: Perichoresis as the guard against tritheism

I never heard about this doctrine at seminary; or, at least, I don’t remember. I first came across it in Carl Beckwith’s volume. Erickson echoes it here. Briefly, Erickson explains, “[p]erichoresis means that not only do the three members of the Trinity interpenetrate one another, but all three are intimately involved in all the works of God,” (235).

This is perhaps most clearly seen in Jesus’ promise about the coming of the Spirit, in John 14-16. In a recent sermon on that same passage, I described this interpenetration as an eternal, divine union between Persons. I was happy to see Erickson echo my own thoughts and state, “[t]he Godhead is to be thought of as less as a unity, in the sense of oneness of simplicity, than as a union, involving three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” (264).

The generic, conservative expressions of the Trinity (even in some theological texts) is often a functional tritheism. This doctrine of perichoresis was revolutionary to my own thinking, and I think it’s rightly the key to avoiding the charge of tritheism.

5: Analogies can be useful

There are lots of really bad Trinity analogies. Some theologians believe we should cast aside all attempts to make analogies, because they each inevitably fall short. Erickson disagrees, and sees them as useful symbols for pointing to a larger reality. Erickson explains:

It is simply not possible to explain it [the doctrine of the Trinity]unequivocally. What must be done is to offer a series, a whole assortment of illustrations and analogies, with the hope that some discernment will take place. We must approach the matter from various angles, ‘nibbling at the meaning’ of the doctrine, as it were.

Erickson, God in Three Persons, 268.

What I’ve taken away from this is that some analogies are useful to get at different aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity.

  • for the idea of a composite union forming one entity, Erickson suggests the analogy of the brain, the heart and the lungs forming distinct but integral parts of a human body. Each is quite useless on its own, and by itself each could never be called “human.” But, combined together, we have a human being. Thus it is with the Persons of the Trinity; they do not exist and have never existed without each other. They are more than the sum of their parts.
  • for the concept of interpenetration as closeness of relationship, Erickson suggests a marriage.

6: There is no eternal subordination of function or nature

Most conservative evangelical pastors are taught that there is an eternal subordination of function in the Godhead. That is, Father, Son and Spirit are equal in power, glory, honor (etc.), but they have different roles in accordance with their functions. The Father is always “in charge,” as it were, because He has a particular role to play. This is why the Son always obeys the Father, etc.

Advocates for this position often reach to the analogy of complementarian marriage; men and women are equal before God, but the husband is in charge because he’s been assigned a superior role. There is equality in essence, but subordination in function.

I couldn’t agree less. I think this idea, variously called eternal functional subordination (EFS) or eternal subordination of the son (ESS), is terribly misguided. I disagree with EFS wholeheartedly. I’ve read Bruce Ware’s Father, Son and Holy Spirit (EFS) and I’ve read Erickson’s book against EFS. As far as I’m aware, only Erickson, Kevin Giles and D. Glenn Butner have written book-length works against EFS – the rest of the generically conservative evangelical folks seem to tilt towards EFS.

The issue of eternal generation is tied up with EFS; it’s advocates generally don’t hold to eternal generation. Interestingly, Erickson opposes EFS and dislikes eternal generation. J. Oliver Buswell Jr., who didn’t address the issue (‘cuz it wasn’t an issue in his day), presents Christ’s functional subordination as temporary and strongly suggests we get rid of eternal generation altogether. David Beale, a theologian and historian much closer to home, dedicated perhaps 30 pages of his historical theology to arguing against eternal generation. 

Speaking for myself, I don’t understand eternal generation and have never read an account by a theologian who seemed to understand it, either (including Beckwith, who is otherwise excellent). I think Shedd came close, but I forgot his reasoning one day after reading it – it’s very convoluted. It smacks of some kind of ontological subordination to me, no matter which way you slice it – and it doesn’t seem tied to the text.

Erickson writes:

I would propose that there are no references to the Father begetting the Son or the Father (and the Son) sending the Spirit that cannot be understood in terms of the temporal role assumed by the second and third persons of the Trinity, respectively. They do not indicate any intrinsic relationship among the three. Further, to speak of one of the persons as unoriginate and the others as eternally begotten or proceeding from the Father is to introduce an element of causation or origination that must ultimately involve some kind of subordination among them …

There is no permanent distinction of one from the others in terms of origination. While the Father may be the cause of the existence of the Son and the Spirit, they are also mutually the cause of his existence and the existence of one another. There is an eternal symmetry of all three persons.

Erickson, God in Three Persons, 309-310.

Erickson unpacked this at great length in his book examining EFS, Who’s Tampering With the Trinity, which I recently read and agreed with.

Now what?

I want to teach the Trinity in church one day, unpacking these concepts in a way average, ordinary Christians can understand. These concepts, mentioned briefly above, will likely form the backbone of what this teaching series will eventually look like. The problem, again, is how to be comprehensive without being exhaustive. I don’t think I can do that, right now.

So, for now, I nibble around the edges a bit, emphasizing what I can as the text suggests it. Right now, I preach a sermon on either the Trinity, or Father, Son and Spirit each time we observe the Lord’s Supper, which is monthly. In this manner, I’ll likely cover all of this eventually but I’d like to bring it all together in two sermon or two, one day. I don’t know if I can do that!

But, I can at least say that I’ve read (and continue to read) widely on the subject, and I’ve gotten to a point where I can accurately sketch out where I need to go. The latest three watershed revelations for me are that (1) the concept of perichoresis is extraordinarily helpful and biblical, (2) EFS is quite dangerous, and (3) the doctrines of eternal generation and the Spirit’s procession (i.e. some sort of taxis with the Godhead) are likely extra-biblical and can be dropped.

I plan to order Erickson’s book on God’s attributes, and his tome on the incarnation soon. It may not come as a great surprise that Erickson is my favorite theologian! I need to read Beckwith’s book again, and I plan to see what Moltmann and Brunner have to say about the Trinity, too. I also need to delve into the patristic authors more. There’s always more to read, but it’s always fun.

Who is Jesus? A Bible Study

helpStudying bible doctrine can be hard. There are two approaches a bible teacher can take here.

He can do this in a systematic way, where he explains the doctrine using passages or verses from all over the Bible to present a comprehensive, thorough look at what the Scripture has to say about a particular issue. The difficulty here is that you can’t “see” the doctrine in one particular place, because you’ve been skipping around so much.

He can also teach a doctrine from one major passage, and perhaps a few more, too. But, the teacher will usually spend his time working through a major passage, allowing the students to “see it” with their own eyes as they discuss the passage, bit by bit. The downside is that not every passage will have everything “important” in it; there are always more passages to turn to!

In response to a great question from a church member (hi, Laura!), I decided to post a series of questions about Christ from Hebrews 1. This list isn’t comprehensive, and I could have thought of more. But, it’s a good start! I also decided to start by providing a very brief discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity, to get us off on the right foot.

Ciao. Enjoy …

A moment with the trinity

Here is a short, orthodox definition of God, from the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith (Article 2):

We believe that there is one, and only one, living and true God, an infinite, intelligent Spirit, whose name is JEHOVAH, the Maker and Supreme Ruler of heaven and earth; inexpressibly glorious in holiness, and worthy of all possible honor, confidence, and love; that in the unity of the Godhead there are three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; equal in every divine perfection, and executing distinct and harmonious offices in the great work of redemption.

This definition tells us a whole bunch of things:

  1. There is one true God, He’s alive today, and He’s infinite in power and greatness.
  2. He is a Spirit, which means He has no inherent bodily form.
  3. His name, according to the Hebrew spelling, is Jehovah. In more modern times, we know this should actually be pronounced YAHWEH (“yaw-whey”)
  4. God made and rules over all creation
  5. God is indescribably holy
  6. God deserves all possible honor, confidence and love
  7. This one God has always consisted of three Divine people; Father, Son and Spirit.
  8. Each Person is co-eternal (i.e. been around forever) and co-equal to each other.
  9. Each person acts in unity with the other (“unity of the Godhead”), which means all three Divine People act together to accomplish everything. There is never a time when the Son acts, and the Father and Spirit take a rest on the front porch for a while. They act together.
  10. God chose to highlight different roles for each Person in Scripture, so we’d see and understand each Person taking a “starring part” in a different role, so we’d understand that He’s triune (i.e. Father, Son and Spirit). By highlighting one Person’s activity in an action more than the other two, God shows us His triune nature.

Questions, questions!

Here are some questions to consider from Hebrews 1-2:

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world (Heb 1:1-2).

 

Jesus is God’s Son (Heb 1:2). What does that mean?

A psalmist also mentioned God’s son, in Psalm 2. What is that Psalm about? What does God’s Son do, in that psalm? Who is He king over? What kind of power will he have? Is this son, in Psalm 2, the same or different than God? Why do you think God quoted Psalm 2 at Jesus’ baptism (Mk 1:9-11), and called Jesus His Son? Why do you think God did the same thing, again, later in Jesus’ ministry (Mk 9:2-8)?

What does it mean, in Hebrews 1:2, when the Bible tells us God appointed Jesus “heir of all things?” What is an heir? What does that mean for Jesus? What are “all things?”

Who created the world (Heb 1:2)? Doesn’t the Book of Genesis say God created the world? Read Psalm 33:6-7, and especially Job 38-39. Why, in light of these passages, does it say that God (one Person) used His Son (a second Person) to create the world?

He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs (Heb 1:3-4).

What does it mean that the Son “reflects the glory of God” (Heb 1:3)? The KJV says He is “the brightness of His glory.” What does this mean? Can a created being ever perfectly reflect God’s glory?

If Jesus reflects God’s glory, then is He somehow distinct from God? After all, you can’t reflect your own glory; someone else has to reflect it, right?

What does it mean that the Son “bears the very stamp of His [i.e. God’s] nature,” (Heb 1:3)? The KJV says the Son is “the express image of His person.” What does this mean? Can a created being really have an identical nature, and bear the very stamp of God’s nature? What does this tell us about who Jesus is? Is He divine, or created?

The Son is, right now (present-tense) “upholding the universe by His word of power,” (Heb 1:3). What does this mean? Doesn’t the Bible say that Jehovah, God Almighty, created and controls the world, even now (read Psalm 33:6-7, and especially Job 38-39)? What does this tell us about Jesus, and the doctrine of the Trinity?

What does it mean that the Son “made purification from sins” (Heb 1:3)? How did He do that?

What does it tell you about Jesus that He “sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high” (Heb 1:3)?

A Psalmist used a similar phrase (i.e. sitting at God’s right hand) in Psalm 110; what is that psalm about? Who is the LORD who speaks to David’s Lord, who’s sitting at His right hand? What does the LORD send His Lord to do? Why do you think Jesus asked the same question (Mk 12:35-37)?

Why is the Son “much superior” to the angels (Heb 1:4)? If angels are God’s highest created beings, then what does this (and everything we’ve asked) tell us about who Jesus is?

For to what angel did God ever say,

“Thou art my Son,
today I have begotten thee”?

Or again,

“I will be to him a father,
and he shall be to me a son”?

And again, when he brings the first-born into the world, he says,

“Let all God’s angels worship him.” (Heb 1:5-6)

Did God ever call an angel His Son (Heb 1:5; see Psalm 2:7)? Why do you think the writer of the Book of Hebrews is making this comparison? What does he want you to “get” about Jesus?

Did God ever promise to make an angel His son, and to be a Father to an angel (Heb 1:5; see 2 Samuel 7:14)? Why do you think the writer of the Book of Hebrews is making this comparison? What does he want you to “get” about Jesus?

Of the angels he says,

“Who makes his angels winds,
and his servants flames of fire.”

But of the Son he says,

“Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever,
the righteous scepter is the scepter of thy kingdom.
Thou hast loved righteousness and hated lawlessness;
therefore God, thy God, has anointed thee
with the oil of gladness beyond thy comrades,” (Heb 1:7-9).

God calls His angels servants (Heb 1:7; see Psalm 104:4) but, the writer of Hebrews says, compare this to when a Psalmist wrote a song that called the Israelite king “God,” (Heb 1:8; see Psalm 45:6-7). This king’s throne endures forever, He’ll have a kingdom to rule over, and He loves righteousness and hates lawlessness (Heb 1:8-9). Why do you think the writer of the Book of Hebrews is making this comparison? What does he want you to “get” about Jesus? He’s the Israelite King they’d been waiting for (see Mk 11:7-10). So, what does it mean that the writer of Hebrews called the king from Psalm 45 “God?”

And,

“Thou, Lord, didst found the earth in the beginning,
and the heavens are the work of thy hands;
they will perish, but thou remainest;
they will all grow old like a garment,
like a mantle thou wilt roll them up,
and they will be changed.
But thou art the same,
and thy years will never end.”

But to what angel has he ever said,

“Sit at my right hand,
till I make thy enemies
a stool for thy feet”? (Heb 1:10-13).

The writer of Hebrews also wants you to know that a Psalmist was also talking about God’s Son when he wrote that God made the earth and the heavens, that God will last longer than both of them, and that God is eternal (Heb 1:10-12; see Psalm 102:25-27). The Psalmist said God did this, but the writer to Hebrews says this was actually talking about God’s Son! Likewise, the Book of Genesis says God created the heavens and the earth, but the writer of Hebrews says God actually did that through His Son (Heb 1:2).

It’s important you know the New Testament further clarifies things the Old Testament says. God did create everything, in the triune sense that all three People participated in creation, but the writer wants to highlight the Son’s particular role in that drama. But, when compared to this, what angel did God ever tell to “sit at my right hand, till I make thy enemies a stool for thy feet” (Heb 1:13)? Why do you think the writer of the Book of Hebrews is making this comparison? What does he want you to “get” about Jesus?

Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation (Heb 1:14)?

What does the Bible say angels do, in Hebrews 1:14? Is that what Jesus does, or does He have a much bigger role?

Finis

There are other good bible passages to turn to about Jesus. But, this is a good one to start with. I hope you find it useful.

Jesus and the Woman from Tyre (Mark 7:24-30)

syrophonecianMark’s a guy who appreciates irony, and the best part is that he never has to go looking for it – Jesus supplies it. He’s just had a very sharp disagreement about ritual, ceremonial purity with the scribes and Pharisees who’d come from Jerusalem (Mk 7:1-23). They held to a racist interpretation of ritual defilement and believed any primary or secondary contact with a Gentile made them “unclean” before Yahweh. They even believed the very air itself could contaminate them, and proscribed bizarre and arcane rituals for cleansing pots, cooking utensils, and their hands before any meal.

In dramatic fashion, Jesus rebukes this heretical invention (“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites!”) then heads straight out of Galilee “to the region of Tyre and Sidon” (Mk 7:24), which is Gentile territory. Every Christian’s heart should be warmed as he reads this swift denunciation of legalistic foolishness. The Jewish leaders are blind as bats to Jesus and His message, whereas a Gentile woman in Tyre understands everything, and displays a mature and earnest faith. Jesus knew this would happen (cf. Lk 4:22-30). The trip to Gentile country deliberately emphasizes Jesus’ lesson against the heretical ceremonial rules of the day, and it makes the point to anyone who has eyes to see.[1]

He’s preached to people from this region before (see Mk 3:8), and even though Jesus seeks some degree of solitude, “yet he could not be hid,” (Mk 7:24). This isn’t an example of the “Messianic secret” theme that’s so common in Mark; it simply proves Jesus is so popular He’s unable to remain anonymous for long.[2] In an age before Twitter updates, “humble-brag” social media posts and Facebook Live, Jesus’ popularity is indeed startling. It’s here, at this anonymous little house far from home, where Mark shows us more evidence for Christ’s deity and the doctrine of the Trinity.

A woman shows up. Mark’s account is sparse. She “immediately” appears and falls down at His feet. But, there’s more. Matthew tells us she said, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon,” (Mt 15:22). When you consider Matthew’s addition, it’s clear this woman understood exactly who Jesus was. Skeptical commentators seem to forget Jesus went about, preaching and teaching the same message over, and over, and over, and over … and then over again. His last audience with a crowd from Tyre was as dramatic as they get. Jesus preached from a boat to untold hundreds (perhaps thousands), healed many, and the demons He cast out each screamed, “You are the Son of God!” as they bowed in homage to Him (Mk 3:7-12).

It’s difficult to think of a more memorable afternoon at the lake. We’ve no idea if this woman was there that day, but she’s obviously heard of this man from Galilee. She calls Him “Lord, Son of David,” which makes it clear her knowledge has some content. To her, this isn’t some carnival, miracle-maker; He’s the Lord of glory, the descendent par excellence from David. She knows she doesn’t deserve mercy, but she begs for it anyway. She “fell down at His feet” (Mk 7:25) in worship.

In the Tanakh, believers used the title “Lord” to refer to Yahweh Himself. When people of faith refer to Jesus as “Lord,” our mental eyebrows should raise an inch or two … or three. If Jesus is also Lord, then Scripture is showing us a distinction between Jesus and Yahweh. The woman’s second title for Jesus, “Son of David,” makes this even more explicit. Yahweh, in the triune sense, is Lord. Yet, Jesus, the Son of David and the promised Messiah, is also “Lord.” This is the same subtle distinction we see, for example, in Zechariah’s prophesies (e.g. Zech 2:9-11) where Jesus and Yahweh often switch speaking roles in the very same sentence. They, quite literally, complete each other’s sentences and thoughts. While they’re One, they’re also distinct, too.

Jesus responds in a deliberately callous manner. “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” (Mk 7:28). It’s possible Jesus seized on this convenient analogy from the scene inside the home, with a meal either in process or just finished.[3] Commentators often engage in hand-wringing at this point; either desperately trying to salvage the “meek and mild” Jesus of fairy-tale lore or suggesting the woman’s “clever reply” changed His mind. Nonsense.

The “children” are the Israelites. The “food” is the Gospel, and the blessings the new and better covenant will bring to all God’s people. The “dogs” are the Gentiles. It’s unnecessary to re-imagine the “dog” reference as being a term of endearment (e.g. “little doggy”),[4] or to invent a twinkle in Jesus’ eye to soften this blow; this is exegesis of desperation. It’s also folly to believe the woman is stupid or ignorant, and doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying.[5] No, the woman understands very well what the issue is. She was either present that day at the lake (Mk 3:8ff), or heard a detailed, content-rich explanation of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God, and His role as the “Son of David” who would rule and reign over the world. Her words, and Jesus’ response, prove this.

But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home, and found the child lying in bed, and the demon gone (Mk 7:28-30)

She responds by calling Him “Lord” yet again, and this is also not an accident.[6] She understands who He is. He’s the Son of David, the promised Messiah, the Lord of glory, the One who has power over the forces of darkness and can heal her little daughter. She also understands Israel’s primary role as the vehicle of blessing and salvation for the Kingdom of God. The Israelites will be the divine conduit, the priests who will mediate the message of salvation to the world (see Zech 8:20-23) during Jesus’ millennial reign. His blessings are for them first. She can’t, as it were, skip ahead in line.

The woman understands this. The Tanakh never excludes Gentiles from covenant blessings, but makes it clear these blessings will be brokered by Israelites. She has no problem with this, and we must assume she’d received a very accurate briefing indeed from that afternoon on the lake (cf. Mk 3:8ff). Jesus tells her, “for this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter,” (Mk 7:29). Another account tells us He also said, “O woman, great is your faith!” (Mt 15:28). She “got it.” Jesus knew she got it, so we should be sure she got it, too.

The woman goes on her way, and Jesus heals her little daughter from afar. The eternal Son of God incarnate, in whom all things hold together (Col 1:17), has the power to expel the forces of darkness from the girl from far, far away. “And her daughter was healed instantly,” (Mt 15:28).

The Bible suggests several important things about the Trinity from this little account:

  1. The woman knew who Jesus was; the Lord, the Son of David. This implies a clear distinction between Jesus and the Father above.
  2. She bowed before Jesus in worship. This indicates she knew He was divine, and acknowledged it.
  3. She trusted Him to have power over fallen angels, which means she understood something substantial about His identity.
  4. This understanding shows she was either present that day on the lake with others from Tyre (Mk 3:8), when Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God, conducted mass exorcisms, and the demons bowed in homage and screamed His identity as the eternal Son of God … or she had some very good intel, indeed.
  5. She confessed Jesus as “Lord” yet again, and understood the “Son of David’s” role as the leader of Israel and the mediator of blessings to the Gentiles.
  6. Jesus miraculously healed her “little daughter” from afar, demonstrating His deity.

The irony, of course, is that Jesus criticizes the scribes and Pharisees for their legalism, then high-tails it for Gentile country where he immediately meets a desperate woman with a profound theological grasp of the big picture. This woman, whom the Jerusalem clique would likely dismiss as an ignorant heathen, knows who Jesus is, and understands His role in the redemptive story. She had ears to hear, and eyes to see. I like to think she was there that day on the lake, somewhere in the crowd. I look forward to asking her one day.

Notes

[1] See especially William Lane, The Gospel of Mark, in NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: 1974), 259.  Robert Guelich remarked, “Therefore, this story about Jesus’ ministry that crosses the social boundaries of the day remains both consistent to what the tradition indicates about Jesus’ primary concern for Israel and makes clear how that ministry provided the impetus for the early Church to transcend these boundaries based on one’s response to Jesus,” (Mark 1-8:26, in WBC, vol. 34A (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1989), 389.

William Hendriksen remarked that, if Jesus had followed the Jewish leader’s racist and prejudiced policies, this woman would have been beyond all help; “was not the door of hope closed for this mother because of her race?” (The Gospel of Mark, in NTC [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1975], 298).

[2] See Guelich (Mark, 389).

[3] Richard H. Lenski, An Interpretation of St. Mark’s Gospel (Columbus, OH: Wartburg, 1946), 302.

[4] You’ll find this suggestion discussed (if not endorsed) in most of the major exegetical commentaries, which are often incestuous in their observations. Morna Hooker observed, “There is no reason to suppose that a Gentile would consider it any less offensive to be called a ‘little dog’ rather than a ‘dog’, and descriptions of Jesus’ manner and tone of speech are, of course, sheer imagination. In its present context, the term is a challenge to the woman to justify her request,” (The Gospel According to Saint Mark, in BNTC [London, UK: Continuum, 1991], 183).

[5] Lane suggests this (Mark, 261 – 263).

[6] Guelich (Mark, 388), Hooker (Mark, 183) and Mark Strauss (Mark, in ZECNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014], 313) all agree this term is deliberate, here. Context also agrees!

Jesus as the New Moses

loaves
“Miracle of the Bread and Fish,” by Giovanni Lanfranco (ca. 1620)

This passage covers Mark 6:35-44

A person can know who Jesus really is by looking at what He said about Himself, and what He did. His actions tells us who He is.[1] Here, in this miracle account, Jesus’ actions show He is both divine and yet distinct from the Father. And, in doing so, Mark shows us the doctrine of the Trinity.

This miracle is mentioned in all the Gospel accounts. It clearly occurred in an isolated location (Mk 6:31); likely in the hill country north of Capernaum and west of Bethsaida.[2] Mark has already identified Jesus as the shepherd who leads and teaches Israel (Mk 6:34); a metaphor of royal power and military might, not pastoral tenderness.[3] Jesus is often compared to Moses, especially by Peter (cf. Acts 3:22f), who tradition tells us was Mark’s mentor.[4] Now, Mark gives us another parallel. Just as Moses led the Israelites into the wilderness and relied on God to supply their needs in the desert, Jesus led His people into a “lonely place” and He, too, must find a way to feed them.

Moses was angry at the people, and preferred to die rather than continue to endure their treachery (Num 11:15). Earlier, immediately after the miracle at the Red Sea and their divine rescue from the Egyptian armies, the people had begun their grumbling;

Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger (Ex 16:3).

Yahweh responded by miraculously supplying them with bread; “It is the bread which the LORD has given you to eat,” (Ex 16:15).[5] In the same way, Jesus will supply His people with bread. Moses waited on Yahweh to act; here it’s Jesus who acts – because He is God. He is infinitely more than Moses, or even Elijah (2 Kgs 4:42-44).

The meal itself is a stunning contrast to Herod Antipas’ court of debauchery. This man had married his sister-in-law, wanted to kill John the Baptist for condemning his behavior, and had lecherous designs upon his niece (Mk 6:17ff).[6] Jesus, though, had compassion on the people because they had no spiritual and political leadership. So, “he began to teach them many things,” (Mk 6:34). Throughout the sermon in this desert place, the massive crowd never asks for anything. They’re enthralled. In Mark’s account, it’s the disciples who begin to worry about the logistics (Mk 6:35-36).[7]

Why does Jesus respond the way He does; “You give them something to eat,” (Mk 6:37)? He’s allowed this situation to develop, and now casts the responsibilities back on the disciples. In John’s account, Jesus is the one who brings the matter up on purpose (Jn 6:5); “this he said to test him, for he himself knew what he would do,” (Jn 6:6). Jesus is using this situation as a teachable moment, to help his disciples understand who He actually is.[8] This is key to their training (cf. Mk 8:27-30), and it should be to ours, too. The crowd benefits from the miraculous feeding, but the true audience is the disciples.

They’re astonished; even 200 days wages wouldn’t be enough to feed a crowd this size (Mk 6:37).[9] The disciples have accurately summed up the logistical impossibility of feeding the crowd, even as they misunderstand who Jesus is. Christ responds by ratcheting up the confusion; he commands them to pool their resources and report back on how much food they had among them (Mk 6:38). Again, Jesus intends to heighten their confusion to teach them a lesson – His actions always prove who He is.

Mark tells us Jesus took the small amount of food they’d collected, then “looked up to heaven, and blessed . . .” (Mk 6:41). Who did Jesus look up heaven to, and bless the food to? As he prepares to document Jesus’ miracle, Mark is careful to distinguish the Son from the Father. Jesus, as God the Son incarnate, is perfectly obedient to the Father, and understands “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights,” (Jas 1:17, KJV). Jesus models obedience for us by His thankfulness for food.

Mark doesn’t tell us how the miracle occurred; only that it did occur. It probably occurred as Jesus distributed the bread and fish; it just kept replenishing itself as He doled it out to the disciples.[10] This was not a flashy miracle, accompanied by thunderclaps or a booming voice from on high. The people who were most aware of it were the disciples; who’d just pooled their supplies and produced this small meal! In an understated but profound way, they’re forced to make a determination about who Jesus is. Who is this man . . .

  • who preaches He is the Messiah,
  • who claims to be the strong man who binds Satan and plunders his goods,
  • who gave them power over demons and the curse of sickness,
  • who now provides an unending supply of food for the Israelites in this desert place?
  • Is He a normal man? Or, is He something more?

Like Moses before Him, but in an infinitely more powerful way, Jesus has provided a banquet for the Israelites in the wilderness. Moses had to wait on God for the manna. Jesus is God, and provides the bread Himself.

Some commentators suggest the crowd didn’t realize it was a miracle, and this demonstration was only intended for the disciples.[11] Unless the people in the crowd were extraordinarily dense, this is very unlikely. The obvious logistical hurdles necessary to feed such a massive crowd were surely obvious even to the simplest of men. Clearly, Jesus couldn’t have produced this feast by natural means. And, this position cannot explain the conclusion the crowd draws from this miracle (Jn 6:13-15).[12] It’s best to say the miracle was primarily intended for the disciples, but Jesus took no steps to shield the crowd from the obvious conclusion – this man who claims He is the Messiah is also divine. The dots are there, ready to be connected for all who have ears to hear, and eyes to see (Mk 4:9).

Mark tells us “and they all ate and were satisfied,” (Mk 6:42). John says they ate “as much as they wanted,” and had their fill (Jn 6:11-12). This wasn’t a light meal; Jesus allowed them to gorge themselves and eat as much as they wanted. And, once they were full, there was a large amount of food left (Mk 6:43).[13] The parallels with the wilderness wanderings are startling, and Jesus clearly eclipses Moses in power and authority. He is the shepherd who has come to lead Israel and provide for them materially, spiritually, and by divine appointment. He is the penultimate successor Moses asked for so long ago (Num 27:15-17).

Isaiah wrote about a time when Israel would return to the Lord, who would invite them to come and dine at the banquet table of salvation, sealed by the everlasting covenant (Isa 55:1ff).[14] The New Testament tells us Christ Jesus Himself is the new covenant for all who believe. The God-Man who will inaugurate this covenant sits before them, after a long day of teaching them “many things” about the kingdom of God. He produces an unending feast for them, and fulfills (in miniature) Yahweh’s call for Israel to “hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in fatness,” (Isa 55:2). Yet, here, Jesus is doing the teaching and the people are listening to Him – because He is Yahweh.

These allusions (and others) explain Jesus’ instructions to some of these same people the next day. “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal,” (Jn 6:27).

We understand who Jesus is by considering what He does. “He is like Moses, not only in providing the people with food in the wilderness, but in acting as their shepherd and teaching them. Both activities testify as to who Jesus is.”[15] This miracle is so familiar that I fear it’s lost its impact. Mark tells us Jesus fed 5000 men (Mk 6:45), and Matthew adds, “aside from women and children,” (Mt 14:21). There were likely between 10,000 – 15,000 people present! What Jesus does here is extraordinary, but you won’t ever appreciate that unless you know and love the Old Testament scriptures the incident alludes to.

The Apostle John tells us the crowd understood what Jesus did, and understood at least some of His teachings about the kingdom of God. “When the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!’” (Jn 6:14). They clearly grasped that Jesus was the prophet Moses wrote about so long ago – here at last (Deut 18:15ff)! They were right, but for the wrong reasons – but that will have to wait for another article . . .

In this passage, Mark showed us Jesus as the new Moses, shepherding (i.e. leading) and teaching God’s people in the wilderness, and providing for them. He is like Moses, but infinitely better (cf. Heb 3:1-6a). Moses waited on God to provide; Jesus provided for Himself – because He is God. In a real sense, Christ re-created the wilderness exodus in miniature, but played the part of Moses and Yahweh all by Himself. And yet, the Bible shows us a distinction in Yahweh’s being, because Jesus “looked up to heaven, and blessed,” (Mk 6:42).

These subtle but critical distinctions teach us our one God has revealed that He consists of Father, Son and Spirit. This is what Carl Beckwith has called the ordinary language of faith; “ordinary on the one hand because it is so prevalent throughout the New Testament, but also because so much is assumed by the New Testament writer and left unexplained . . . it represents for us the most basic way in which the faithful talk about the Trinity according to the Scriptures.”[16] We see our triune God not only in the usual didactic passages, but in the ordinary, unassuming and everyday descriptions of Jesus’ activities in Scripture.

Notes

[1] Carl Beckwith, a Lutheran theologian, remarks, “Many New Testament scholars make a distinction between functional Christology and ontological Christology. The former focuses on the activities or functions performed by Christ, and the latter assigns metaphysical categories to the person and nature of Christ. A chief argument used by the Fathers to show the coequality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit centered on the relationship between nature and activity.

For them, we rightly understand ‘who’ someone or something is when we grasp ‘what’ they do. The activity reveals the identity of the doer. Furthermore, for the Fathers, common works indicate common nature. This insight stands at the center of patristic trinitarian thought, and it is an insight owing to Scripture, not philosophy. Simply put, Scripture demanded the correlation of activity and identity or function and ontology,” (Carl L. Beckwith, The Holy Trinity, in Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics, vol. 3 [Fort Wayne, IN: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.], KL 3720 – 3722; 3727 – 3730).

[2] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 190.

[3] On this point, see the previous article in this series, entitled, “Against Cardboard Shepherds.”

[4] See Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.15 and 3.39.15. He called Mark “the interpreter of Peter.”

[5] It is amusing to see how, almost without fail, commentaries on Mark’s gospel which I consulted repeat the same reference from Numbers 11:13, 23. However, that passage deals with the Israelites complaining about the manna, not Moses’ conundrum about supplying them with food. The contexts are different. I’m not sure why every commentator leaps to this passage. I suspect it is incestuous; commentators repeat each other and reuse trusty prooftexts without too much critical thought. The only possible parallel is Moses’ frustration contrasted with Jesus’ omniscience. But this, too, doesn’t gel. Jesus has no reason to be frustrated, whereas Moses was frustrated for good reason.

The real parallel is positive; Moses led the people out and God provided vs. Jesus led the people out and He provided – because He is God. Jesus is like Moses, but infinitely better.

[6] For a short discussion about the niece, see Edwards (Mark, 187-188).

[7] See Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, 6 vols. (New York, NY: Revell, n.d.), 5:489.

[8] “Jesus, in contrast to the circumstances depicted in all of the other miracles, appears deliberately to create the situation in which the people must be fed . . . His instructions to the disciples, which perplex and baffle them, are intended to lead them to understanding,” (William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, in NICNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974], 228).

[9] A denari was “a Roman silver coin. The equivalent of a typical daily wage (e.g., Matt 18:28; 20:2–13; 22:19; Mark 6:37; Luke 7:41; John 6:7; Rev 6:6),” (“Denarius,” in Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry et al. [Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016]).

[10] Some translations, like the NASB, render the imperfect verb with an iterative sense to get this across (“He kept giving them to the disciples to set before them,” Mk. 6:41).

[11] “The disciples do not understand him although they were given an abundant opportunity to see his glory. That is why they alone are reproved for their hardness of heart and their failure to grasp the meaning of the miracle of the loaves in the subsequent narrative,” (Lane, Mark, 232).

[12] Mark Strauss agrees the crowd wasn’t aware of the miracle, and suggests Jn 6:14-15 refers to the actions by a select few in the crowd who did understand (Mark L. Strauss, Mark, in Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014], 277). I also find this unconvincing. The crowd understood what happened; this is the best way to explain John 6:14-15.

[13] “Jesus is therefore able to provide the people in the desert what Moses could not. Moses had to contend with disgruntled people teetering on the edge of starvation. Those gathered around Jesus are all satisfied. In contrast to the manna that could not be gathered up and held over until the next day, Jesus’ bread can be collected,” (David E. Garland, Mark, in NIVAC [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996], 254).

[14] “The feeding also echoes Isaiah’s call for Israel to come now to God’s banquet, celebrating the salvation about to be realized,” (Garland, Mark, 255).

[15] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark, in Black’s New Testament Commentary (London: Continuum, 1991), 165.

[16] Carl L. Beckwith, The Holy Trinity, in Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics, vol. 3 (Fort Wayne, IN: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.), KL 4743-4750.

The Trinity in the Old Testament

beckwithCarl Beckwith, a Lutheran theologian, explains a little bit about how God revealed His triune nature in the Old Testament scriptures:

What are we to make of Scripture variously identifying the sole creator of the heavens and the earth as YHWH, Elohim, Word, Spirit, Wisdom, and Father? The answer must be that the scriptural understanding of monotheism encompasses both Is 44: 24 (“ Thus says YHWH, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: I am YHWH, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself”) and Gn 1: 1, Dt 32: 6, and Ps 33: 6.

Scripture declares that YHWH by Himself made all things, stretched out the heavens, and made us from the womb. According to Scripture, however, the same may be said of the Father, the Word/ Wisdom, and the Spirit. Further, Scripture insists that we have one creation, not three, and that these three created, not that they contributed a part here and a part there. Their work of creation is one.

The only responsible conclusion according to the Scriptures is to confess the correlative and coequal working of Father, Word/ Wisdom, and Spirit, and to locate all three— equally and eternally— within the unique identity of YHWH, our Elohim.

Carl L. Beckwith, The Holy Trinity, in Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics, vol. 3 (Fort Wayne, IN: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.), KL 4538-4547.

Some Kind Words from Peter

Here are the notes for this week’s Sunday School. The audio is below:

Peter opens his first letter with these words:

Peter, [an] apostle of Jesus Christ – to [the] chosen who are resident foreigners; that is, [the] diaspora in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, [chosen] according to God the Father’s plan, by the Spirit’s sanctification, for the purpose of obedience, as well as sprinkling with Jesus Christ’s blood. May grace and peace be always increasing to you! (1 Peter 1:1-2).

Peter isn’t trying to teach the Trinity; he just assumes it as he writes the opening words of the letter. It’s interesting that Peter doesn’t feel he needs to teach these Christians about the Trinity. We worship one being who is God, and within God three co-equal and co-eternal Persons have always existed – Father, Son and Spirit.

Here are some foundational pillars for understanding the Trinity:

  1. There is only one God
  2. God consists of three distinct Persons, with different roles and responsibilities
  3. Each Person has always existed
  4. Each Person is fully divine (e.g. not ⅓ divine)
  5. Each Person is one with the others

Here is the point:

  • In 1 Peter 1:1-2, Peter discusses something specific each Person of the Trinity does when God saves somebody. Why do you think Peter spends so much time emphasizing God’s grace in salvation?

Knowing this is the truth about God, put yourself in a Christian’s shoes who heard this letter read, somewhere in Northern Turkey, on the shores of the Black Sea in the early 60s A.D.

  1. You’ve a Gentile, and you’ve grown up as a pagan. You’ve offered sacrifices to pagan idols at your temples, and worshipped many gods your entire life. Before you became a Christian, the Roman officials began encouraging people to offer incense to an image of the Roman Emperor
  2. You’ve become a Christian, and joined a small group of disciples. Most of these Christians are former Jews, whose parents first became Christians after making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover and Pentecost about 33 years before. They witnessed Jesus’ triumphal entry, His execution, and heard the rumors about His resurrection. They saw the miracle at Pentecost, when tongues of fire descended upon Christ’s disciples. They saw the results, as these men began to preach and teach the Gospel in languages from all over the world! They, like so many others, repented of their sins and believed in Jesus that day. They brought that faith back home, all those years ago.
  3. You’ve stopped worshipping the gods, you don’t go to the pagan temples, you don’t offer incense to the gods, and you refuse to worship and reverence the Emperor’s image. Your family has disowned you, and kicked you out on the street. Your entire community has disowned you; maybe they’ve even driven you from your hometown with threats of death.
  4. You have no friends, family, or social support structure – all you have is your brothers and sisters in Christ, who help provide for you as best they can.

How tempting would it would be to try and mold your pagan beliefs back with your Christian beliefs? How easy would it be to try and rationalize this kind of move? After all, you live in a syncretic culture – your friends and family would love if you’d just add Jesus to your list of pagan gods!

You’d need some pretty good reasons to stick it out and remain a faithful Christians in this kind of environment – so Peter gives you some:

  1. God has chosen you for salvation
  2. You’re resident foreigners, and part of a group of pilgrims who live in a very unholy land
  3. You’re not alone – there are others just like you scattered all throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia!
  4. You, and every single other Christian, were each chosen according to God the Father’s plan. This means you’re important (not in and of yourself), but you’re important to God
  5. You were set apart for divine service (i.e. “sanctified”) by the Spirit. God sent the Spirit to shine the Gospel light into your heart and change your mind about sin, righteousness and judgment, so that you would repent and believe
  6. This was all done so that you’d become a Christian, obey the Gospel, and have Christ’s work applied to your soul

All three Persons of the Trinity are involved in your salvation. If you’re the new Christian in Bithynia, this gives some extraordinary comfort to you as you think about life, late at night, when all your family, friends, community and entire life has gone up in smoke because of your faith. If you’re a Christian today, it does the very same thing.

Peter focus on the Trinity to give you hope. God chose you. The Spirit set you apart for service, so you’d be obedient to the Gospel and have the Son’s work applied to your soul. This is why you can continue on, day by day, week by week, month by month. This is why you can and must persevere for Christ.

Jesus and the Sad, Angry Little Men (Mark 3:1-6)

man with handI originally wrote this article for SharperIron.org. Reprinted with permission.

This is a sad little story, because we see sad little men rejecting their great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. They have made void the word of God through their tradition (cf. Mk 7:13). In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ early confrontations with the Pharisees come quickly, one after the other. This particular account is where the water boils over.

Mounting Opposition

First, they questioned why Jesus shares a meal with such “worldly” and “disreputable” people (2:15-17). They don’t ask Jesus; they ask His disciples (Mk 2:16). We’re not sure why the Pharisees don’t approach Jesus directly. But we can guess, knowing ourselves, that they’re a bit tentative and unsure of themselves. Perhaps, they thought, it’ll be better to take the indirect route and cast doubt on His credentials to His followers.

Jesus, ever the polite diplomat, answers immediately with a burst of sarcasm. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners,” (Mk 2:17). This is a warning shot across the bow, and it’s the first direct contact Jesus has with the Pharisees in Mark’s gospel. This is clearly an adversarial relationship from the very beginning. Jesus didn’t mince words when it came to self-righteous and blasphemous legalism. Matthew preserved another bit of the story, in which Christ verbally backhanded the Pharisees (“Go and learn what this means . . .” Mt 9:13) with a quote from Hosea 6:6.

The next episode follows right on the heels of this discussion (2:18-22). The Pharisees[1] demand to know why Jesus’ disciples don’t fast. Jesus responded and prophesied His own death (2:19-20). He then explained the Old Covenant (the old garment) cannot be patched up like an old sweater, or jerry-rigged to accommodate the New Covenant; “new wine is for fresh wineskins,” (2:22). We’re not sure how much of this the Pharisees understood, and Mark didn’t tell us. But, I doubt it was a pleasant conversation.

The final episode is the alleged Sabbath violation (2:23-28). Jesus cited a Scriptural precedent for violating the strict letter of the law under emergency circumstances (2:25-26). He then claimed a divine and Messianic title (“son of man”) and declared He was “lord even of the sabbath,” (2:28).

Mark gives us these incidents one after the other, and the reader is left almost reeling as this freight train of hostility and opposition springs forth from seemingly nowhere. This early enmity comes to a crescendo with the Pharisees storming out of the synagogue and colluding with their enemies to kill Jesus (3:6).

The Confrontation in the Synagogue

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. And they watched him, to see whether he would heal him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him (Mk 3:1-2).

Again, Mark doesn’t tell us who “they” are, but the context assures us it is the Pharisees.[2] Why is the man there? Is this a coincidence? We know the Pharisees are watching all the time,[3] waiting, their little black notebooks at the ready, cellphone cameras on standby – anxious to gather evidence against Jesus. It is tempting to see the man as a prop, a poor sucker planted there as bait. We don’t know whether that is the case. But, we do know Jesus is being set up. If the Pharisees didn’t plant the poor man there, we can be sure they were at least “pleased” he was there.

Ironically, the Pharisees deny Jesus the right to do good on the Sabbath, while they actively plot to do evil![4]

This little episode is about more than proof for Jesus’ divinity. It is about this single miracle as one of a series of signs and wonders which announced the kingdom of God to those who had ears to hear. The prophets wrote that, when God returned for His people, the blind would receive sight, the deaf would hear, the lame will leap for joy and “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing,” (Isa 35:5-6, 10). Christ appealed to these texts as proof that He was, indeed, the Messiah who had come to bring His people into the figurative promised land of eternal rest (Lk 4:16-21; 7:18-23; cf. Heb 4:1-11).

Rather than ponder the implications of Jesus’ teaching coupled with these signs and wonders, the Pharisees lie in wait in the synagogue like impotent little spiders, weaving a pathetic web of trickery. The man with the withered hand may have been a plant, or just somebody who happened to be there, but one thing is certain – the Pharisees didn’t care about him at all. He was a prop. He was nothing. They didn’t care if Jesus did heal him; they just wanted the evidence for a trial. Like serial killers who take genuine civic pride in obeying the speed limit, these legalists have it all backward.

And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent (Mk 3:3-4).

Jesus knew everything (cf. Jn 2:24-25; Lk 5:6-7; Lk 6:8, etc.). He knew what the Pharisees were up to. He did not run away to fight another day. He felt discretion was no valor at all. He asked an open and rhetorical question designed to unmask their legalistic and blasphemous tradition about the Sabbath. This is the only time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus initiates a healing without being approached. Clearly, He decided to make a decisive stand here.[5]

Nobody answered. Nobody said a word. Why not? Jesus had what we now call “command presence.” People listened to Him. He taught with authority (Mk 1:27). I suspect the Pharisees couldn’t have spoken even if they’d wanted to. Mark recorded another, similar incident later in his Gospel (Mk 12:34). They are speechless before this teacher who had such passion, such presence and such intrinsic authority.

What does Jesus mean by asking, “to save life or to kill?” Some commentators believe Jesus was referring to the Pharisees’ own intentions towards Him (cf. 3:6).[6] If that is so, no wonder they dared not answer. “While Jesus is preparing to do good, they are plotting his death! Which is the real Sabbath violation?”[7]

And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored (Mk 3:5).

This is an instantaneous healing, and a true miracle. Jesus does not appeal to God for healing; He simply performs the action Himself. This is very, very different than what the OT prophets did (cf. 1 Kgs 13:6). Jesus is a prophet, but He is as qualitatively different from His Old Covenant counterparts as a glowworm is from a floodlight. He is divine. They were not.

What about the Pharisees’ hearts upset Jesus so much? Their inability to answer His question? Their callousness by using this poor man as a prop for their own wicked ends? Their inability and unwillingness to face the implications of His own teaching and the signs and wonders He performed? Perhaps it was all of this.

The word is usually rendered as “hardness” or “stubbornness” here. Hardness implies they are spiritually insensitive (e.g. Tyndale, “blindness”). Stubbornness gives the sense of stiff-necked inflexibility; they are wilfully rebellious. The NEB translates it as “obstinate stupidity,” which is a delightfully appropriate phrase!

Yes, this miracle is more proof for Jesus’ divinity. But, that is not why Mark wrote it. His didactic purpose is to highlight the scribes’ and Pharisees’ growing opposition in the face of Jesus’ explicit preaching, teaching and divine signs. These miracles are proof that “the kingdom of God is come unto you,” (Mt 12:28). People are healed. Demons are cast out. Jesus, by the Spirit of God, has bound Satan and is plundering his house (Mk 3:27). What must this mean!?

The Pharisees don’t care what it means. They have their evidence. The healed man is irrelevant. He’s served his purpose. Away with him! They ignore him, like some men would ignore a filthy dog (cf. Jn 9:34). Jesus is all that matters; not the implications of His teaching, but the evidence for His alleged “blasphemy.”

Throughout His ministry, Jesus shows a deliberate contempt for the oral tradition which “fenced” the Old Covenant law. The Pharisees feel this is a fundamental betrayal of orthodoxy, and act in fury out of righteous indignation. They are sincere, but they are sincerely wrong. Jesus, however, is not moved by pettiness or or self-righteousness. He is filled with righteous anger.

The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him (Mk 3:6).

The “Herodians” were widely castigated as liberal compromisers.[8] They were not devout. It says something that the Pharisees sought to form an alliance with these men – all in order to kill the Lord of glory. This is their furious response to a whole host of escalating confrontations.[9] Their blood is up. Jesus is a blasphemer who despises the traditions of the fathers. He has now violated the Sabbath twice, and they have the evidence to prove it! Jesus must be destroyed – the law demands it (Ex 31:14-17)! Surely, they reason, God agrees with their zeal . . .

They Did Not Recognize Him . . .

So, off they go, in a huff. Jesus has righteous anger, these Pharisees have self-righteous resentment.[10] The Kingdom of God has broken into human history. The proof is here – behold the signs and wonders! The Messiah is here – behold His teaching! The legalistic externalism of the Pharisees is condemned. True worship flows from the heart and is proven by devoted action (cf. 1 Sam 15:22-23).

This little miracle proves Jesus’ deity, but it is a sad account. Confronted with their Savior, the Pharisees plot His death. The Apostle Paul was right:

For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets which are read every sabbath, fulfilled these by condemning him (Acts 13:27).

Notes

[1] The Greek doesn’t specify who came to Jesus; it is simply a third-person plural verb (ἔρχονται). The closest antecedent are the scribes of the Pharisees (2:17). It is reasonable to conclude the Pharisees asked Jesus this question.

[2] See Walter W. Wessel (Mark, in EBC, vol. 8 [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984], 639) and Mark Strauss (Mark, in ZECNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014], 147).

[3] The verb here is imperfect (παρετήρουν αὐτὸν), which gives the general sense of an unfolding, continual action in the past. I think the NASB did well to render it as a descriptive imperfect (“they were watching Him . . .”).

[4] Mark Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 98.

[5] Strauss (Mark, 147).

[6] Edwards (Mark, 100) and William Hendriksen, Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1975), 116.

[7] Strauss (Mark, 148).

[8] For more on the Herodians, see H. W. Hoehner, “Herodian Dynasty,” 5, in Dictionary of the New Testament: Backgrounds, ed. Craig Evans and Stanley Porter (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 493-494.

[9] See William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, in NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 121-122.

[10] Hendriksen (Mark, 117).

Is Jesus Christ God? (Pt. 1)

To answer this question, we’ll have to start by discussing what the Trinity is. Here is a brief definition:

Within the one Being that is God, there exists three eternally co-equal and co-eternal persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Picture2
The Trinity!

We do not worship three Gods; we worship one God. Each Person of the Godhead is fully God, not ⅓ God. It is so important that we understand who the God we worship is. The Trinity is one of the more misunderstood doctrines of the Christian faith; all Christians would affirm it but not too many people would really understand what it means.

Notice how carefully worded the definition above is; every single word matters. There is a reason why I stress that (1) there is one Being, (2) existing in three Persons and that these Persons are each (3) co-equal and (4) co-eternal. This will become clear in the next blog article, where I briefly explain some of the heresies through the ages, particularly the various forms of monarchism and Arianism in the 2nd-3rd centuries. These are not just dusty, old “issues” fought over by a bunch of dead men – they go to the very heart of what it means to be a Christian.

Here is a short, orthodox definition of the Trinity:

One Being or Essence (Deut 6:4; Jas 2:19)

He is not three Gods – He is One God.  We must be very careful to emphasize that we do not worship three separate Gods. The distinction between the one “being” or “essence” and the three “Persons” of this one Being are only our pitiful attempts to express the inexpressible. The term “essence” is not an explicitly Biblical term, but a secular phrase which attempts to capture the concept. It is not a sacred term, but as John Frame noted, it is doubtful a better term will be found.[1]
This is not merely a partnership, whereby each member of the Godhead can sign official paperwork in the name of the firm; there is one Being consisting of three distinct Persons – each one is fully divine.

The fundamental sticking point with men who hold heretical views is this; they rightly conclude the Old Testament teaches monotheism (Deut 6:4), but then therefore assume that the New Testament cannot teach that Christ is also God. Christological heresies begin with this basic presupposition. The distinction between (1) the one Being comprised of (2) three co-equal and co-eternal, separate Persons will be made clear in our look at the Gospel of John, below. The Trinity isn’t a doctrine that can be merely explained; it must be illustrated directly from Scripture to capture the full effect.

Three Persons

Each person has a very specific role in the unity of the Godhead, and is conscious of His specific role. For example, the Father sent Christ (Jn 5:22-24). Christ, as an independent Person of the Godhead, seeks only to do the will of His Father (Jn 6:35-40). The Holy Spirit comes from the Father and the Son (Jn 14:15-17; 15:26-27). Each Person of the Godhead is addressed as separate, specific Persons with distinct roles, which will be seen shortly.

Just as with the term “Being,” the word “Persons” is an attempt to express Scriptural truth. It defeats the notion of modalism, where Father, Son and Spirit are merely different manifestations or modes of the one God. The word “Person” immediately brings to mind a separate, individual identity. I am different than you; we are different people. Likewise, Father, Son and Spirit are completely different Persons who comprise the one Being that is God. They must not be conflated or mistaken for one another; they are different People.

There is no inferiority of status; the Father is not #1, the Son #2 and the Spirit #3. Each Person is co-equal and co-eternal; they are each equal in dignity and have each existed eternally – there was never a time when the three Persons of the Godhead did not exist. 

Why Should You Care?

So, why should we care about this doctrine? Can’t we get along just fine without really grasping what the Trinity is all about? Consider this very brief statement by a Unitarian theologian; Unitarians deny the deity of Christ in a manner similiar to Arians. Theirs is a heretical, dangerous position:

Here are several reasons why an understanding of our God is so vital for our faith:

Because He is the God We Serve! 

The God the Father always works through God the Son, and the Son does His work in human hearts only through the God the Holy Spirit.[2] Revelation cannot happen without the triune Godhead. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost (2 Peter 1:21). We can see that men are saved only by Christ and recorded divine revelation from God through the working of the Holy Spirit.

It is How We’re Saved!

God the Father planned redemption in eternity past (Eph 1:3-5), God the Son is the means of that salvation (Eph 1:9-10) and the God the Holy Spirit effectually calls sinners to repentance. The Christian Savior simply must be Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It Makes Us Christians!

The triune Godhead is the distinguishing characteristic of Christianity.[3] No false religion can compare to it; it is novel and absolutely unique. It is what makes a Christian a Christian! “To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him?” (Isa 40:18).

It’s How We Worship!

Christian worship is inherently Trinitarian, whether one even realizes or acknowledges it. Paul opens his epistle to the Ephesians by acknowledging the triune Godhead; “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ,” (Eph 1:3). Even in prayer, man “comes to God the Father, pleading the name of Christ, and is taught how to pray aright by the Holy Spirit.”[4]

Growth in Christ

God chose all who believe in Him from before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4) to be saved by the work of Christ (Eph 1:7-10) and be sanctified by the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18). “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord,” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Unity

There is an unfathomable unity of purpose among the persons of the Godhead. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are never in conflict and each works with the other towards one unified, common purpose.

Walking Through the Gospel of John

For sake of time, we’ll take a brief walk (or perhaps sprint!) through key passages in the Gospel of John. I could spend much more time here, and John’s Gospel deserves more time. Do that extra study on your own and think deeply about the testimony of Scripture on this matter. Hopefully, the brief discussion here will make matters plain to you!

Prologue of John (1:1-18):

  • Christ and God are co-equal and co-eternal (v.1)
  • Christ and God are co-eternal (v.2)
  • Christ was the active Person of the Godhead in Creation (v.3)
  • Christ is our means of salvation, and this makes sense because He is God! Consider both the unity of purpose and the separate, distinct roles of each Person of the Godhead in effectually bringing about salvation of sinful men:
    • God the Father planned salvation in eternity past and predestinated those who believe for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will (Eph 1:4-5)
    • God the Son died in our place for our sins, as a substitutionary sacrifice. The Father laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isa 53:6).
    • God the Spirit effectually applies the benefits of Christ’s death to us when we believe (Eze 36:25-27).
  • Christ, who is co-equal and co-eternal, was “made flesh and dwelt among us.” He wasn’t a created creature or a different “mode” of God.
  • Christ makes the Father known to us; he is the perfect revelation of the Father, the radiance of His glory and teh exact imprint of His nature (Heb 1:3). This is why Christ can tell the Jews, “If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him,” (Jn 14:7).  

Christ’s Claims to Be God (Jn 5:1-18):

  • The Pharisees demanded to know why Christ was doing works on the Sabbath; as if a man carrying his bed was really a violation of the Sabbath according to the Old Testament!
  • “And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day. But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work,” (John 5:16-17).
    • Christ’s message is very simple. God works on the Sabbath. Christ says God is His Father, therefore He too can work on the Sabbath!
  • The Jews, by their reaction to this saying, understood Christ was claiming to be co-equal with the Father:
    • Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God (John 5:18).

 Christ is Separate from God:

  • John 5:19 Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.
  • John 5:30 I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.

 Christ is God’s Revelation to Men (Jn 6:22-29):

  • The Jews seek Christ after He feeds the 5,000 (v.22-25).
  • They sought Him for the wrong reasons (v.26)
  • They must not work for perishable bread, but for the Bread of Life – Christ (v.27)
    • Only He can give this bread to them
    • God has set His seal on the Son
  • The only “work” they must do to receive the Bread of Life is believe on Christ (v.28-29). He is the very revelation of God to men.

All Three Persons of Godhead Active in Salvation (Jn 6:35-51):

  • “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day,” (John 6:44). Consider this very important verse (I beg everybody to read the entire context, and consider the implications for election, effectual calling and preservation) and follow the train of thought here:
    • A man must receive Christ for salvation
    • No man can come to Christ on his own
    • The Father sent Christ
    • A man is drawn to Christ by the Holy Spirit (Eze 36:26-27; Jn 3:5; Tit 3:5)
    • The Holy Spirit does the will of the Father when He draws a sinner to Himself!

The Jews Accuse Christ of Blasphemy – Proving He Presented Himself as God:

  • Christ is separate from the Father, yet co-eternal with the Father
    • Jn 8:31-59
      • John 8:57-59 Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham? Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am. Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.
      • Why did the Jews seek to kill Jesus? It was clearly because they understood Him to be claiming to be God. Whatever odd interpretation men might come up with today; Christ’s original audience understood Him perfectly well.
    • Jn 10:22-42
      • John 10:25-31 Jesus answered them, I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness of me. But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand. I and my Father are one. Then the Jews took up stones again to stone him.
      • Once again, consider why the Jews sought to slay Jesus – He claimed to be God!
  • Christ executed because of alleged blasphemy
    • Jn 19:1-16
      • Jn 19:4-7 Pilate therefore went forth again, and saith unto them, Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him. Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man! When the chief priests therefore and officers saw him, they cried out, saying, Crucify him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Take ye him, and crucify him: for I find no fault in him. The Jews answered him, We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.
      • The very reason why Christ was executed was because He claimed to be God; this was the basis of the Jews’ complaint to Pilate.

 Christ Accepts Worship – Which a Creature Cannot Do!

  • John 20:26-28 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.

We’ll examine some 2nd and 3rd century heresies in the next post.


[1] John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 697.

[2] Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1979), 350.

[3] Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 15-16.

[4] Strong, Systematic, 349.

How Well Do You Know the Trinity?

How well do you know the doctrine of the Trinity? Could you explain, from the Scriptures, that Jesus was God? Could you explain how the Christian understanding of Christ as God doesn’t make us tri-thiests, or people who believe in three Gods?

Watch the video below, a short five minute clip from a Unitarian who believes Jesus was a created being, and not a person of the Godhead. This video is heresy! Could you answer his argument? After the video, see a short explanation on the historical development of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity!

 

 

What you just watched was heresy. Now, I’ll give a short account of how the orthodox Trinitarian doctrine developed:

How the Doctrine of the Trinity Developed

When you consider “how the teaching of the Trinity developed,” it is important to understand that we are not talking about how men made up this doctrine. We’re talking about the struggle to precisely put into words the body of faith received from Christ and His disciples. This oral tradition, or body of faith, had acted as a conduit for correct doctrine and had eventually been set down in writing at the prompting of the Holy Spirit (1 Pet 1:21). So, we’re not discussing how men made this doctrine up, but how they struggled to precisely synthesize and define a doctrine clearly taught in the Scriptures.

There are five basic phases in the historical development of the Triune God, each often overlapping with one another; the economic concept, dynamic monarchism, modalism, Arianism and orthodoxy.[1] The very early church in general did not concern itself with deep theological reflection; therefore these various heretical doctrines generally emerged in conflict with orthodoxy in the mid to late 2nd century and early 3rd century. The church was chiefly concerned with basic survival amidst intense periods of persecution. “The process of organizing itself and propagating the faith and even the struggle for survival in a hostile world precluded much serious doctrinal reflection.”[2]

Economic Concept

This economic development dealt with the roles of the specific persons of the Godhead rather than the ontological development and its implications. Early church fathers who developed the economic concept include Hippolytus, Tertullian and Justin Martyr. Their conclusion was that God consists of one identical substance which is extended into three distinct manifestations.[3]

Justin Martyr, writing in the mid 2nd century likened this to one fire kindled from another; “which is not lessened when it has kindled [another], but remains the same; and that which has been kindled by it likewise appears to exist by itself, not diminishing that from which it was kindled.”[4]

Tertullian, writing sometime between 197-217 A.D., characterized this as a unity of substance and remarked,

Even when the ray is shot from the sun, it is still part of the parent mass; the sun will still be in the ray, because it is a ray of the sun—there is no division of substance, but merely an extension.[5]

Tertullian went on, “the material matrix remains entire and unimpaired, though you derive from it any number of shoots possessed of its qualities.”[6]

Tertullian actually formulated the concept of later orthodoxy, “one essence in three persons” in his attack on modalism. In his polemic on Praxeas, written no earlier than 208 A.D., he wrote again of a unity of substance which was distributed into a Trinity;

placing in their order the three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and [l3] aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.[7]

This economic concept of the Trinity is orthodox but incomplete. Erickson lamented about a “certain vagueness” in the economic concept of the Trinity. “Any effort to come up with a more exact understanding of just what it means will prove disappointing.” [8]

Dynamic Monarchism

This concept was an attempt by the early church to actually define the relationship between Christ and God. The main proponent of monarchism was Theodotus, who brought the doctrine to Rome about 190 A.D. He sought to preserve the supremacy of God the Father at the expense of God the Son.[9] Jesus was not really God; God was simply working through Him.

Theodotus “did not deny Christ’s birth from a virgin . . . but he did deny his divinity, teaching that he was a mere man upon whom the Holy Spirit descended at the time of his baptism, in consequence of which he became the Christ, received power to fulfill his special mission and by his righteousness was raised above all other men. The descent of the Holy Spirit, however, although raising him to a very exalted position, did not make him divine.”[10]

The concept was that Christ was elevated to an exalted position, a sort of “moral oneness” with God.[11]

A key proof-text for this concept was 1 Cor 5:19,[12] where Paul wrote “in Christ God was reconcilingthe world to himself.” Christ was not divine; God was simply using Christ as the means to achieve His ends. This view was condemned by the Christian community. Dionysius, the Bishop of Rome from approximately 259-263 A.D., held monarchist views. Eusebius recorded that Dionysius held, “contrary to the teaching of the Church, low and degraded views of Christ, namely, that in his nature he was a common man.” The catholic church (in the original sense of the term) moved energetically to combat this heresy, summoning Dionysius to a council to explain himself. Eusebius contemptuously referred to him as “a despoiler of the flock of Christ.”[13] Monarchism was never a widespread movement and was a relatively isolated phenomenon.[14]

Modalism

Erickson wrote that modalism was “a genuinely unique, original and creative conception . . . a brilliant breakthrough.”[15] It advocated the view that God was really just one person with three different names, roles or activities. Father, Son and the Holy Spirit are identical, successive revelations of the same person.[16] Like a skilled thespian, God simply plays different roles at different times.

Tertullian, writing his treatise against Praxeas sometime after 208 A.D., observed dryly, “Praxeas did a twofold service for the devil at Rome: he drove away prophecy, and he brought in heresy.”[17] Tertullian boldly claimed that Satan himself was working through Praxeas in his modalistic interpretation of the Trinity. “Out of this doctrine of the unity he may fabricate a heresy. He says that the Father Himself came down into the Virgin, was Himself born of her, Himself suffered, indeed was Himself Jesus Christ.”[18] He went on to state,

So it is either the Father or the Son, and the day is not the same as the night; nor is the Father the same as the Son, in such a way that Both of them should be One, and One or the Other should be Both.[19]

Employing a legal tactic of positing and answering modalistic objections, Tertullian continued,

Well, but “with God nothing is impossible.” True enough; who can be ignorant of it? Who also can be unaware that “the things which are impossible with men are possible with God?” The foolish things also of the world hath God chosen to confound the things which are wise.” We have read it all. Therefore, they argue, it was not difficult for God to make Himself both a Father and a Son, contrary to the condition of things among men. For a barren woman to have a child against nature was no difficulty with God; nor was it for a virgin to conceive. Of course nothing is “too hard for the Lord.

But if we choose to apply this principle so extravagantly and harshly in our capricious imaginations, we may then make out God to have done anything we please, on the ground that it was not impossible for Him to do it. We must not, however, because He is able to do all things suppose that He has actually done what He has not done.[20]

The modalistic conception of the Trinity was indeed novel. It solved any number of problems; both the unity of the Godhead and the full deity of all three persons are perfectly preserved by it. Ultimately, however, Scripture condemned this heresy to the flames. Too many texts spoke far too explicitly of the Trinity as distinct persons for the church to accept; such as Christ’s baptism, Christ speaking of the coming of the Spirit and His prayers that were specifically addressed to the Father.[21]

Arianism

The Arians, like the modern day Jehovah’s Witnesses, went a different route. Christ, they asserted, was not equal with God or even God at all – He was a creature brought into being by God. They felt that elevating Christ to the level of God the Father was, in effect, abandoning monotheism. They went further than the monarchists by emphatically declaring Christ was no more than a mere creature. However, from the beginning the church had worshipped Christ as God! The stage was set for a divisive battle. Athanasius considered Arianism to be a “harbinger of the Antichrist” and the daughter of Satan.[22] Summarizing their teaching, he wrote,

God was not always a Father; but once God was alone, and not yet a Father, but afterwards He became a Father. The Son was not always; for, whereas all things were made out of nothing, and all existing creatures and works were made, so the Word of God Himself was made out of nothing, and once He was not, and He was not before His origination, but He as others had an origin of creation.[23]

The church was quite rightly concerned with condoning the worship of a mere man. Athanasius wrote against the Arian heresy with great enthusiasm, judging it to be a theology which had been “vomited forth” and was at odds with Scripture and “alien to the divine oracle.”[24] Arians took Proverbs 8:22-23 as one of their primary proof-texts; “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.” The Arians examined texts such as this and others[25] and concluded it may be appropriate to call Christ a god, but he was certainly not the same as God the Father.[26] Arias himself explained,

God himself is inexpressible to all beings. He alone has none equal to him or like him, none of like glory. We call him unbegotten on account of the one who by nature is begotten; we sing his praises as without beginning because of the one who has a beginning. We worship him as eternal because of him who was born in the order of time. The one without beginning established the Son as the beginning of all creatures.[27]

Therefore, according to Arians, Christ Himself could not even fathom God’s essence. He was a mere creature; an exalted creature, to be sure – but a creature nonetheless. Church historian Justo Gonzalez summarized by observing, “if asked to draw a line between God and creation, Arians would draw that line so as to include the Word in creation.”[28]

Orthodoxy

The Arian heresy prompted the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., the first ever ecumenical council of the early church. Prior to Nicea, church disputes had been settled over time with long debate culminating with an eventual consensus. After the conversion of Constantine, for the first time the authority of the state was invoked to settle a theological issue. Advocates of particular viewpoints could, for the very first time, forsake lengthy explanations of their positions in favor of simply convincing imperial authority. “Eventually, theological debate was eclipsed by political intrigue.”[29]

Arianism began as a local conflict in Alexandria, Egypt. The Bishop of Alexandria, Alexander, was in vehement disagreement with Arias, who was one of the most famous presbyters of the city. Alexander eventually condemned Arias and removed him from all official positions in Alexandrian church. Arias, refusing to meekly fade from the scene, appealed to the common people of Alexandria and other Bishops from throughout the East for support. Arias was quite successful; people marched in the streets chanting Arian dogma and various Bishops wrote letters in support. The Eastern church was in turmoil.

Constantine, who had recently established Christianity as the state religion, resolved that he must act. He decided to call a council of Bishops from the entire empire to settle this matter, among others. Arias, not being a Bishop himself, was forbidden to attend. He counted on Eusebius of Nocomedia to present his views. Eusebius (not to be confused with the historian) resolved to simply explain the matter, certain that all opposition would fade away in light of the remorseless logic of Arianism. Eusebius’ oration did not go well.

The assertion that the Word or Son was no more than a creature, no matter how high a creature, provoked angry reactions from many of the bishops: ‘You lie!’ ‘Blasphemy!’ ‘Heresy!’ Eusebius was shouted down, and we are told his speech was snatched from his hand, torn to shreds, and trampled underfoot.[30]

The result of this controversy, the Nicene Creed, is emphatically anti-Arian and takes great pains to emphasize the deity of Christ;[31]

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead.

In the Nicene Creed the early church provided a clear and unambiguous affirmation of the full deity of all three persons of the Godhead, while at the same time maintaining their distinct roles in the economic Trinity.

The doctrine received further refinement at the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. where the common phrase “three in one” was coined;[32] the very essence of the orthodox concept of the triunity of God. He is not triple, but three in one.


[1] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 358-360. Erickson omits a discussion of Arianism.

[2] Ibid, 353.

[3] Ibid, 358.

[4] Justin Myrtyr, Dialogue with Trypho 61, ANF 1:607

[5] Tertullian, Apology 21, ANF 3:34. Emphasis mine.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Tertullian, Against Praxeas 2, ANF 3:59. Emphasis mine.

[8] Erickson, Theology, 358.

[9] Millard J. Erickson, Making Sense of the Trinity: Three Crucial Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2000), 48.

[10] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.28, NPNF2 1:597

[11] Erickson, Making Sense, 48.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 7.28.2, NPNF2 1:807.

[14] Erickson, Theology, 359.

[15] Ibid, 360.

[16] Ibid, 360.

[17] Tertullian, Against Praxeas 2, ANF 3:598.

[18] Ibid. Emphasis mine.

[19] Tertullian, Against Praxeas 10, ANF 3:604

[20] Ibid.

[21] Baptism (Mt 3:13-17; Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21-22; Jn 1:29-34), Christ speaks explicitly to the Father (Jn 17) and of the Spirit (Jn 16:5-11).

[22] Athanasius, Discourse Against the Arians 1.1.1., NPNF2, 4:306.

[23] Athanasius, Discourse Against the Arians 1.2.5, NPNF2, 4:309.

[24] Athanasius, Discourse Against the Arians 1.3.10., NPNF2, 4:312.

[25] Jn 14:28; Mk 10:18 and Lk 18:19; Mk 13:32; Lk 2:52

[26] Erickson, Making Sense, 51.

[27] Graham Keith, “Our Knowledge of God: Insights from the Fourth-Century Trinitarian Controversies,” Reformation and Revival 12:1 (Winter 2003), 86.

[28] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 2 vols., combined ed. (Peabody, MS: Prince Press, 2007), 1:161.

[29] Ibid, 159.

[30] Ibid, 164.

[31] Rick Brannan, ed., Historic Creeds and Confessions (Grand Rapids, MI: CCEL, n.d.).

[32] Erickson, Theology, 361.

What is the Trinity?

Introduction

This paper presents a Biblical doctrine of the Triune Godhead. First, the importance of the doctrine itself is examined along with practical ramifications for the Christian life. Next, the historical development of the Godhead is presented and various heretical movements are analyzed. Contemporary issues in the doctrine are also examined. A personal theology of the Triune Godhead follows which presents primarily conclusions, not arguments, to avoid repetition. Arguments supporting the personal theology are provided in a biblical theology of the doctrine itself from Scripture. This biblical theology is thematic, and traces three themes through Scripture; (1) God is one, (2) God is three and (3) these Three are one. Due to space limitations, this is not an exhaustive biblical theology.

This paper argues for the following definition of the Triune Godhead and will demonstrate this doctrine is fully orthodox, supported by the church fathers and most importantly by Scripture;

Within the one Being that is God, there exists three eternally co-equal and co-eternal persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

CHAPTER 1

IMPORTANCE OF THE DOCTRINE

God revealed Himself in Triune form – thus we must assume it is vital to our faith.[1] There are several reasons why the doctrine of the Trinity is absolutely central to all other Christian doctrines.

Revelation

The God the Father always works through God the Son, and the Son does His work in human hearts only through the God the Holy Spirit.[2] Their roles are absolutely complementary in every respect; revelation cannot happen without the triune Godhead. “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit,” (2 Pet 1:21). Men are saved only by Christ and recorded divine revelation from God through the working of the Holy Spirit.

Redemption

God the Father planned redemption in eternity past (Eph 1:3-5), God the Son is the means of that salvation (Eph 1:9-10) and the God the Holy Spirit effectually calls sinners to repentance. The Christian Savior must be Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Identity

The triune Godhead is the distinguishing characteristic of Christianity.[3] No false religion can compare to it; it is novel and absolutely unique. It is what makes a Christian a Christian. “To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him?” (Isa 40:18, KJV).

Worship

Christian worship is inherently Trinitarian, whether one even realizes or acknowledges it. Paul opens his epistle to the Ephesians by acknowledging the triune Godhead; “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,” (Eph 1:3). Even in prayer, man “comes to God the Father, pleading the name of Christ, and is taught how to pray aright by the Holy Spirit.”[4]

Sanctification

God chose sinners before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4) to be saved by the work of Christ (Eph 1:7-10) and be sanctified by the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18). It is the Holy Spirit which works in the hearts of men, both to effectually call and to sanctify those whom God, by His grace, saves.

Unity

The preceding have served to demonstrate the unfathomable unity of purpose among the persons of the Godhead. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are never in conflict and each works with the other towards one unified, common purpose.

CHAPTER 2

HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT

There are five basic phases in the historical development of the Triune God, each often overlapping with one another; the economic concept, dynamic monarchism, modalism, Arianism and orthodoxy.[5] The very early church in general did not concern itself with deep theological reflection; therefore these various heretical doctrines generally emerged in conflict with orthodoxy in the mid to late 2nd century and early 3rd century. The church was chiefly concerned with basic survival amidst intense periods of persecution. “The process of organizing itself and propagating the faith and even the struggle for survival in a hostile world precluded much serious doctrinal reflection.”[6]

Economic Concept

This economic development dealt with the roles of the specific persons of the Godhead rather than the ontological development and its implications. Early church fathers who developed the economic concept include Hippolytus, Tertullian and Justin Martyr. Their conclusion was that God consists of one identical substance which is extended into three distinct manifestations.[7]

Justin Martyr, writing in the mid 2nd century likened this to one fire kindled from another; “which is not lessened when it has kindled [another], but remains the same; and that which has been kindled by it likewise appears to exist by itself, not diminishing that from which it was kindled.”[8]

Tertullian, writing sometime between 197-217 A.D., characterized this as a unity of substance and remarked, “Even when the ray is shot from the sun, it is still part of the parent mass; the sun will still be in the ray, because it is a ray of the sun—there is no division of substance, but merely an extension.”[9] Tertullian went on, “the material matrix remains entire and unimpaired, though you derive from it any number of shoots possessed of its qualities.”[10]

Tertullian actually formulated the concept of later orthodoxy, “one essence in three persons” in his attack on modalism. In his polemic on Praxeas, written no earlier than 208 A.D., he wrote again of a unity of substance which was distributed into a Trinity;

placing in their order the three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.[11]

This economic concept of the Trinity is orthodox but incomplete. Erickson lamented about a “certain vagueness” in the economic concept of the Trinity. “Any effort to come up with a more exact understanding of just what it means will prove disappointing.” [12]

Dynamic Monarchism

This concept was an attempt by the early church to actually define the relationship between Christ and God. The main proponent of monarchism was Theodotus, who brought the doctrine to Rome about 190 A.D. He sought to preserve the supremacy of God the Father at the expense of God the Son.[13] Jesus was not really God; God was simply working through Him.

Theodotus “did not deny Christ’s birth from a virgin . . . but he did deny his divinity, teaching that he was a mere man upon whom the Holy Spirit descended at the time of his baptism, in consequence of which he became the Christ, received power to fulfill his special mission and by his righteousness was raised above all other men. The descent of the Holy Spirit, however, although raising him to a very exalted position, did not make him divine.”[14] The concept was that Christ was elevated to an exalted position, a sort of “moral oneness” with God.[15]

A key proof-text for this concept was 1 Cor 5:19,[16] where Paul wrote “in Christ God was reconcilingthe world to himself.” Christ was not divine; God was simply using Christ as the means to achieve His ends. This view was condemned by the Christian community. Dionysius, the Bishop of Rome from approximately 259-263 A.D., held monarchist views. Eusebius recorded that Dionysius held, “contrary to the teaching of the Church, low and degraded views of Christ, namely, that in his nature he was a common man.” The catholic church (in the original sense of the term) moved energetically to combat this heresy, summoning Dionysius to a council to explain himself. Eusebius contemptuously referred to him as “a despoiler of the flock of Christ.”[17] Monarchism was never a widespread movement and was a relatively isolated phenomenon.[18]

Modalism

Erickson wrote that modalism was “a genuinely unique, original and creative conception . . . a brilliant breakthrough.”[19] It advocated the view that God was really just one person with three different names, roles or activities. Father, Son and the Holy Spirit are identical, successive revelations of the same person.[20] Like a skilled thespian, God simply plays different roles at different times.

Tertullian, writing his treatise against Praxeas sometime after 208 A.D., observed dryly,

“Praxeas did a twofold service for the devil at Rome: he drove away prophecy, and he brought in heresy.”[21]

Tertullian boldly claimed that Satan himself was working through Praxeas in his modalistic interpretation of the Trinity.

“Out of this doctrine of the unity he may fabricate a heresy. He says that the Father Himself came down into the Virgin, was Himself born of her, Himself suffered, indeed was Himself Jesus Christ.”[22]

He went on to state,

So it is either the Father or the Son, and the day is not the same as the night; nor is the Father the same as the Son, in such a way that Both of them should be One, and One or the Other should be Both.[23]

Employing a legal tactic of positing and answering modalistic objections, Tertullian continued,

Well, but “with God nothing is impossible.” True enough; who can be ignorant of it? Who also can be unaware that “the things which are impossible with men are possible with God?” The foolish things also of the world hath God chosen to confound the things which are wise.” We have read it all. Therefore, they argue, it was not difficult for God to make Himself both a Father and a Son, contrary to the condition of things among men. For a barren woman to have a child against nature was no difficulty with God; nor was it for a virgin to conceive. Of course nothing is “too hard for the Lord.”

But if we choose to apply this principle so extravagantly and harshly in our capricious imaginations, we may then make out God to have done anything we please, on the ground that it was not impossible for Him to do it. We must not, however, because He is able to do all things suppose that He has actually done what He has not done.[24]

The modalistic conception of the Trinity was indeed novel. It solved any number of problems; both the unity of the Godhead and the full deity of all three persons are perfectly preserved by it. Ultimately, however, Scripture condemned this heresy to the flames. Too many texts spoke far too explicitly of the Trinity as distinct persons for the church to accept; such as Christ’s baptism, Christ speaking of the coming of the Spirit and His prayers that were specifically addressed to the Father.[25]

Arianism

The Arians, like the modern day Jehovah’s Witnesses, went a different route. Christ, they asserted, was not equal with God or even God at all – He was a creature brought into being by God. They felt that elevating Christ to the level of God the Father was, in effect, abandoning monotheism. They went further than the monarchists by emphatically declaring Christ was no more than a mere creature. However, from the beginning the church had worshipped Christ as God! The stage was set for a divisive battle. Athanasius considered Arianism to be a “harbinger of the Antichrist” and the daughter of Satan.[26] Summarizing their teaching, he wrote,

God was not always a Father; but once God was alone, and not yet a Father, but afterwards He became a Father. The Son was not always; for, whereas all things were made out of nothing, and all existing creatures and works were made, so the Word of God Himself was made out of nothing, and once He was not, and He was not before His origination, but He as others had an origin of creation.[27]

The church was quite rightly concerned with condoning the worship of a mere man. Athanasius wrote against the Arian heresy with great enthusiasm, judging it to be a theology which had been “vomited forth” and was at odds with Scripture and “alien to the divine oracle.”[28] Arians took Proverbs 8:22-23 as one of their primary proof-texts;

“The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.”

The Arians examined texts such as this and others[29] and concluded it may be appropriate to call Christ a god, but he was certainly not the same as God the Father.[30] Arias himself explained,

God himself is inexpressible to all beings. He alone has none equal to him or like him, none of like glory. We call him unbegotten on account of the one who by nature is begotten; we sing his praises as without beginning because of the one who has a beginning. We worship him as eternal because of him who was born in the order of time. The one without beginning established the Son as the beginning of all creatures.[31]

Therefore, according to Arians, Christ Himself could not even fathom God’s essence. He was a mere creature; an exalted creature, to be sure – but a creature nonetheless. Church historian Justo Gonzalez summarized by observing, “if asked to draw a line between God and creation, Arians would draw that line so as to include the Word in creation.”[32]

Orthodoxy

The Arian heresy prompted the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., the first ever ecumenical council of the early church. Prior to Nicea, church disputes had been settled over time with long debate culminating with an eventual consensus. After the conversion of Constantine, for the first time the authority of the state was invoked to settle a theological issue. Advocates of particular viewpoints could, for the very first time, forsake lengthy explanations of their positions in favor of simply convincing imperial authority. “Eventually, theological debate was eclipsed by political intrigue.”[33]

Arianism began as a local conflict in Alexandria, Egypt. The Bishop of Alexandria, Alexander, was in vehement disagreement with Arias, who was one of the most famous presbyters of the city. Alexander eventually condemned Arias and removed him from all official positions in Alexandrian church. Arias, refusing to meekly fade from the scene, appealed to the common people of Alexandria and other Bishops from throughout the East for support. Arias was quite successful; people marched in the streets chanting Arian dogma and various Bishops wrote letters in support. The Eastern church was in turmoil.

Constantine, who had recently established Christianity as the state religion, resolved that he must act. He decided to call a council of Bishops from the entire empire to settle this matter, among others. Arias, not being a Bishop himself, was forbidden to attend. He counted on Eusebius of Nocomedia to present his views. Eusebius (not to be confused with the historian) resolved to simply explain the matter, certain that all opposition would fade away in light of the remorseless logic of Arianism. Eusebius’ oration did not go well.

The assertion that the Word or Son was no more than a creature, no matter how high a creature, provoked angry reactions from many of the bishops: ‘You lie!’ ‘Blasphemy!’ ‘Heresy!’ Eusebius was shouted down, and we are told his speech was snatched from his hand, torn to shreds, and trampled underfoot.[34]

The result of this controversy, the Nicene Creed, is emphatically anti-Arian and takes great pains to emphasize the deity of Christ;[35]

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead.

In the Nicene Creed the early church provided a clear and unambiguous affirmation of the full deity of all three persons of the Godhead, while at the same time maintaining their distinct roles in the economic Trinity.

The doctrine received further refinement at the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. where the common phrase “three in one” was coined;[36] the very essence of the orthodox concept of the triunity of God. He is not triple, but three in one.

CHAPTER 3

CURRENT ISSUES

There is nothing novel in modern developments of the Trinity; “there is nothing new under the sun,” (Ecc 1:9). Contemporary debate on the Triunity of God reflects either ontological unity or economic diversity; characterized by the schools of Barth and Moltmann.[37] The difficulty stems from the inherent mystery of the Godhead itself and the delicate balance with maintaining both unity and diversity within one divine essence.

Favoring Unity

Barth has been dogged with a reputation for modalism by emphasizing the subjectivity of God in self-revelation to such an extent that he undermines the distinctiveness of the persons of the Godhead. He referred to modes of being rather than persons, even going so far as to refer to the Trinity as a “threefold way of being.”[38] Barth explained, “the threefold yet single lordship of God as Father, Son and Spirit, is the root of the doctrine of the Trinity.”[39] This “threefold” concept of God has led some to charge Barth with creating a whole new form of modalism outright.[40]

It is difficult to disagree with this assessment; Barth denies both a plurality of Gods and a plurality of individuals within the Godhead:

“The name of the Father, Son and Spirit means that God is the one God in threefold repetition . . . The truth that we are emphasizing is that of the numerical unity of essence of the ‘persons.’”[41]

Van Til concluded that, to Barth, “the orthodox doctrine of three persons in the ontological trinity would . . . lead to tri-theism.”[42]

Barth casts a large shadow over mainline Protestantism and his views have a wide influence. Barth’s error is in trying to harmonize the Godhead in favor of unity; in so doing he de-emphasizes the distinct persons within the Godhead. The old phrase coined by Tertullian so long ago, “one essence in three persons,” is Scripturally sound though apparently contradictory. It is a doctrine ultimately mysterious to fallen men in a world influenced by Satan (Eph 2:2). Barth is incorrect to harmonize beyond the evidence of God’s special revelation; “the secret things belong to the LORD our God,” (Deut 29:29a). Gregory of Nazianzus, writing in the middle of the 4th century, declared God was “one in diversity, diverse in Unity, wherein is a marvel.”[43]

Favoring Diversity

On the other side of the pendulum, largely in reaction to the perceived modalism of Barth and Rahner, there is a tendency to emphasize the three persons over one essence. This school is largely characterized by the work of Jurgen Moltmann, who advocated a sort of tri-theism which had no place for unity of the Godhead. There is no unity; there is only a community of God, Son and Spirit;

The unity of the divine tri-unity lies in the union of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, not in their numerical unity. It lies in their fellowship, not in the identity of a single subject . . . The fellowship of the disciples with one another has to resemble a union of the Son with the Father. But not only does it have to resemble that Trinitarian union; in addition it has to be a union within this union.[44]

To Moltmann, then, this “unity of persons” which comprises his Trinity replaces the traditional concept of essential unity. He boldly characterized his own challenge to orthodoxy as “trinitarian pantheism” or social trinitarianism. Moltmann saw his conception of a divine community of persons in the Trinity as a model for democratic socialism. [45] He was apparently greatly inspired by a portion from Jesus’ high priestly prayer; “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us,” (Jn 17:21). Moltmann read social implications into the text that are not there. His zest for an ideal social society led him to surrender the entire first half of the Trinitarian formula.

It Hath Been Already of Old Time, Which Was Before Us (Ecc 1:10b)

Neither Barth’s nor Moltmann’s positions are Scripturally tenable. It is striking how often history repeats itself. Once again, the good Gregory of Nazianzus has something important to add to the discussion – from 380 A.D;

But when I say God, I mean Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. For Godhead is neither diffused beyond these, so as to bring in a mob of gods; nor yet is it bounded by a smaller compass than these, so as to condemn us for a poverty-stricken conception of Deity; either Judaizing to save the Monarchia, or falling into heathenism by the multitude of our gods.  For the evil on either side is the same, though found in contrary directions.[46]

CHAPTER 4

PERSONAL THEOLOGY

Within the one Being that is God, there exists three eternally co-equal and co-eternal persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

 One Essence

There is one Divine Being in one indivisible essence (Deut 6:4; Jas 2:19).[47] The term “essence” is not a Biblical term, but a secular phrase which attempts to capture the concept. It is not a sacred term, but as John Frame noted, it is doubtful a better term will be found.[48] The term serves only to label the concepts we learn from Scripture. The overarching point is that God is one. He is a single, indivisible Being. We do not worship many Gods, but one single God.

The term triune is more accurate than trinity to capture this truth. Trinitarian means “three-fold” or having three parts. Triunity, however, means “three-in-one.” God is triune and not triple.

Three Persons

In this one Divine Being there are distinct three persons, Father, Son, Holy Spirit. These three persons within the Godhead are independent; “the three persons are so real and distinct from each other that each possesses a hypostatical or Trinitarian consciousness different from that of the others.”[49] Each person is co-eternal, being involved in the very creation of the heavens and the earth (Heb 1:2; Col 1:16; Gen 1:1-2). There is no blurring of consciousness; each person is only conscious of being the person they are in the essence of the Godhead.[50] Jesus, for example, is an independent person in the Godhead seeking only to do the will of the Father (John 6:38).

The phrase “person,” much like “essence” above, inevitably falls short. Everything which exists has being (e.g. a rock), but not everything which exists is personal. A person, like Abraham Lincoln, is a personal being. However, being limited, poor Abe Lincoln cannot distribute his being among two, three or four persons. He is limited to himself. God is unlimited and infinite, and therefore in a way man cannot understand, His being is shared co-equally by three distinct persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Divine Essence is Undivided

The whole undivided essence of God belongs equally to each of the three persons. The divine essence is not divided among the three persons, but complete in each one of the persons. The whole essence of God is in each Trinitarian person; they are co-equal.[51] The three persons of the triune Godhead are one and the same God. There is also no subordination between the Godhead with respect to essence; each person is equal in being, power and glory. Scripture provides no standard numerical order when it mentions the Godhead.

Distinct Roles

God is first, the Son is second and the Spirit is third. The Father is the source, the Son the channel and the Spirit the active agent in the Godhead.[52] The Father sent the Son (1 John 4:10) and the Spirit (John 14:26). The Father is greater than the Son (John 14:28) and the Son also sent the Spirit (John 14:26). Berkhof remarked there is no difference in personal dignity between the three persons of the Godhead, and thus “the only subordination of which we can speak is subordination in respect to order and relationship.”[53]

CHAPTER 5

SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY OF THE DOCTRINE

God is One

Israel worshipped one God only. God Himself made this quite clear in the commandments He gave to Moses; “You shall have no other Gods before me,” (Ex 20:3). God went on to forbid idolatry of all kinds (Ex 20:4), affirming His right for exclusive worship – He is a jealous God.

He demonstrated His unique reality to His people in what He had done, in events such as the global flood (Gen 5:5-8) and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:23-25). The exodus was a very prominent theme in Deuteronomy, as Moses repeatedly reminded Israel of God’s grace and power in rescuing them from their plight (Deut 6:20-25, 10:21-22, 11:2-7). Israel’s obligation to obey God is predicated on their grateful acknowledgement of His grace and power (Lev 19:36). No other “god” could claim such power. Israel was repeatedly reminded of God’s grace throughout Deuteronomy; the fact that they worshipped one God who never changed is the very basis of their hope. This is why the Lord reminded His people, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one,” (Deut 6:4).

Solomon recognized this timeless truth. At the dedication of the temple, after praising God for His unmerited grace and mercy to His people, Solomon prayed Israel would walk with the Lord so “that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God; there is no other,” (2 Kgs 8:60).

The Apostle James exhorted Christians to remember that mere belief in the one true God is not enough; “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (Jas 2:19). Paul dismissed other “gods” and declared “yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist,” (1 Cor 8:6a). Even more explicit is the declaration from Gen 1:1; “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Bruce Ware remarked, “whatever else Genesis 1 is about, the main thing it teaches is that there is one God.”[54]

 God is Three

Christ is Deity

Early Christians did not consider themselves followers of a new religion. They had been Jews and still were; they simply believed their Messiah had come. How, then, did these Jews move from “oneness” to triunity? The fact they did so is quite clear; many scholars regard Phil 2:5-11 as an early Christian hymn which Paul incorporated into his epistle.[55] Here, Paul taught Christ was “in very nature God” (Phil 2:6, NIV).

The writer to the Hebrews was emphatic in his claims about Christ’s deity. Jesus was the means God the Father used to create all things (Heb 1:2). This sheds new light on the creation account (Gen 1:1); Christ was the active agent carrying out the Father’s plan.

It sheds still more light on who, precisely, spoke to Hagar in the wilderness on the way to Shur (Gen 16:7) and Abraham at the oaks of Mamre (Gen 18:1), for no man can see God the Father and live (Ex 33:20). It was nothing less than pre-incarnate Christ who spoke to Abraham and Hagar.[56]

He is the heir of all things, the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature (Heb 1:2-3). “The Son is such a revelation of the Father that when we see Jesus, we see what God’s real being is.”[57] He upholds the universe by His own power and makes purification for sins, sits at the right hand of the Father and is superior to the angels (Heb 1:3-5). Christ is clearly of equal essence with God the Father, and the early Christians affirmed this fact. Prescient Jews would not have been expecting a earthly Savior; Isaiah spoke of the coming Messiah as “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” (Isa 9:6b). Isaiah’s words are particularly important in light of the God’s own commandments against idolatry (Ex 20:3-4).

Christ’s ministry characterized was characterized by His deity. He taught He was the coming Messiah of whom Isaiah spoke (Lk 4:21). He taught the Kingdom of God was both at hand and fulfilled in Himself (Mk 1:14-15). Christ spoke of God’s angels as being His angels (Mt. 13:41). He claimed to forgive sins (Mk 2:8-10), which the scribes rightly objected was a power ascribed only to God (Mk 2:7). Christ taught He would sit on His glorious throne and judge the world in the last days (Mt 25:31).

His own claim to deity is the reason Christ was arrested. The high priest charges Jesus to state the matter plainly under oath before God (Mt 26:63b).[58] Jesus went on to claim his accusers would see Him ruling and reigning as the Messiah. He intentionally invoked Ps 110:1 and Dan 7:13, the two greatest Kingdom prophesies of the OT. McClain wrote, “The high priest, better schooled than some theologians, understood His regal claim, rent his clothing judicially, and called upon his fellow judges to pronounce Him ‘guilty of death’ ” (Mt 26:66).[59] His own disciples even recognized Him as God (Jn 20:28) and Christ did not correct their assumptions. Christ is clearly God and the early Christians saw Him as such.

The Holy Spirit is Deity

The Holy Spirit is often referred to interchangeably with God. Peter declared that Ananias and Sapphira had lied to the Holy Spirit by keeping back proceeds from land they sold and lying about it (Acts 5:3). Peter went on and declared that by doing so they had lied directly to God (Acts 5:4). The Holy Spirit is God, a co-equal member of the Trinity.

The Holy Spirit performs the same functions as God. He convicts the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment (Jn 16:8). He is the very agent of regeneration (Jn 3:5-8) which brings elect sinners into the Kingdom of God. Nobody indwelt with the Holy Spirit can curse Jesus and nobody can claim “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3). He bestows natural talents and abilities upon God’s people (1 Cor 12:4-11); “all these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills,” (1 Cor 12:11). Christians themselves are a temple of God because the Spirit of God dwells in them (1 Cor 3:16-17).

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is equated with blasphemy of God; “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin,” (Mk 3:28-29). Blasphemy in the OT was specifically against God – to speak contemptuously of the deity. This unpardonable sin (Mk 3:22, 28-29) was nothing less than “the deliberate and perverse repudiation of God’s saving work,” which explains Christ’s strong reaction to this grave sin.[60]

He is likewise an agent of creation, in conjunction with God the Son and therefore cannot be a creature (Gen 1:2); “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” The Spirit is eternal (Heb 9:14) and is the helper for believers after Jesus’ ascension (Jn 14:16-17; 16:6-7). It is the Spirit who sanctifies believers (1 Pet 1:2).

Three Are One

All three members of the Godhead, while they are each distinct persons, are also one divine essence who work together towards a common goal. As a basic generalization, Frame observed that the Father plans, the Son executes and the Spirit applies.[61] They are united in their mission because they are one divine essence. There is a mutual glorification among the Godhead which testifies of the deity of each person.

The Father glorifies the Son (Jn 8:54; 12:23; 17:1), and the Son likewise glorifies the Father (Jn 7:18; 17:4). The Spirit also glorifies the Son (Jn 16:14) who glorifies the Father.[62] This is not merely a partnership, whereby each member of the Godhead can sign official paperwork in the name of the firm; there is one essence existing in three distinct modes. Nobody comes to God the Son unless God the Father first draws Him (Jn 6:44). Christ repeats this point later in the Gospel of John (10:29) and concludes by emphatically stating the oneness of His connection with God the Father; “I and the Father are one,” (Jn 10:30).

Jesus claimed that anyone who had seen Him had seen the Father (Jn 14:9-11). This explains how Genesis can accurately relate “God” created the heavens and the earth, while Paul later clarified that Christ was the very agent of that creation (Heb 1:2; Col 1:16). The baptismal formulas throughout Scripture speak of all three members of the Godhead (Mt 28:19; 2 Cor 13:14; 1 Pet 1:2). The “name” of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19) is singular, although three persons are included. There is also no hint of inferiority or subordination in either formula, precisely because they are each fully deity and united in one purpose. God is also referred to in plural form in several instances (Gen 1:26; 11:7; Isa 6:8). Referring to the Genesis account, (“Let us make man in our image”), Matthews writes, “the plural indicates an intra-divine conversation, a plurality in the Godhead, between God and His Spirit.’[63]

Perhaps the clearest exposition of the unity or oneness of the Godhead is in Eph 4:4-6;

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Eph 4:4. Paul is exhorting the church at Ephesus to remain united in Christ (Eph 4:3). In doing so, he calls their attention to the divine unity of the Godhead. Just as they must be one body of united believers (Eph 2:16), there is one Holy Spirit who indwells them all (Eph 2:22), who called them to the one hope.

Eph 4:5. There is one Lord, Jesus Christ, who is the Head of the church (Eph 1:22-23). There is one faith which the church proclaims – Christ Jesus. There is also one baptism whereby believers signify their spiritual unity with Him (Gal 3:27).

Eph 4:6. There is one God and one Father of all believers who comprise the one church. He is sovereign over all, lives through them all and in them all.

The Athanasian Creed captures the concept, “We worship one God in trinity, and trinity in unity, neither confounding the persons, nor separating the substance.”[64]

SUMMARY

A proper understanding of the Trinity is essential for the Christian faith; for worship, revelation, redemption, sanctification. The Triune Godhead is at the very heart of Christian identity – it defines what it means to be a Christian. The orthodox doctrine of “one being in three persons” developed over time as the church fathers struggled to maintain Scriptural teachings in the midst of various heresies. Modern theological issues revolving around the Triune Godhead, for the most part, recycle old heresies and revisit old fields of battle from wars which have already been fought.

The doctrine advanced by this paper, that within the one Being that is God, there exists three eternally co-equal and co-eternal persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, has been established. It is supported by church history and has been demonstrated by a thematic biblical theology of Scripture. A right view of the Triune God will revolutionize the Christian life and allow His children to give Him all the more glory for His grace towards fallen sinners.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Athanasius, Discourse Against the Arians. The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. 4. Christian Classics Etheral Library, PDF edition, n.d. 4:433-447.

Brannan, Rick, ed. Historic Creeds and Confessions. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Etheral Library, n.d.

Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology, combined ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996

Carson, D.A. “Matthew,” vol. 8. The Expositors Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.

Erickson, Millard J. Making Sense of the Trinity: Three Crucial Questions. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2000.

Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. 1. Christian Classics Etheral Library, PDF edition, n.d. 1:vii-404.

Frame, John M. The Doctrine of God. Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002.

Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity, combined ed. Peabody: Prince Press, 2007.

Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations. The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. 7. Christian Classics Etheral Library, PDF edition, n.d. 7:185-434.

Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, PDF edition, n.d. 191-270.

Keith, Graham. “Our Knowledge of God: Insights from the Fourth-Century Trinitarian Controversies.” Reformation and Revival 12:1 (Winter 2003): 81-103.

Kent, Homer A. Jr. “Philippians,” vol. 11. The Expositors Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Klooster, Fred H. “Barth and the Future of Evangelical Theology.” Westminster Theological Journal 47:2 (Fall 1985): 301-317.

Matthews, Kenneth A. “Genesis 11:27-50:26,” vol. 1b. The New American Commentary. Nashville: B&H, 2005.

McClain, Alva J. The Greatness of the Kingdom. Winona Lake: BMH, 1959.

McCune, Rolland. A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, vol. 1. Detroit: DBTS, 2009.

Morris, Leon. “Hebrews,” vol. 12. The Expositors Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Ross, Allen P. “Genesis,” vol. 1. The Bible Knowledge Commentary. Wheaton: Victor, 1985.

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Strong, Augustus H. Systematic Theology. Old Tappan: Revell, 1979.

Tertullian, Apology. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, PDF edition, n.d. 17-60.

Tertullian, Against Praxeas. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, PDF edition, n.d. 597-632.

Theissen, Henry. Lectures in Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949.

Toussaint, Stanley. Behold the King. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1980.

Van Til, Cornelius. “Has Karl Barth Become Orthodox?” Westminster Theological Journal 16:2 (May 1954): 135-181.

Ware, Bruce A. Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles and Relevance. Wheaton: Crossway, 2005.


[1] Bruce A. Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles and Relevance (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 13.

[2] Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1979), 350.

[3] Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 15-16.

[4] Strong, Systematic, 349.

[5] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 358-360. Erickson omits a discussion of Arianism.

[6] Ibid, 353.

[7] Ibid, 358.

[8] Justin Myrtyr, Dialogue with Trypho 61, ANF 1:607

[9] Tertullian, Apology 21, ANF 3:34. Emphasis mine.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Tertullian, Against Praxeas 2, ANF 3:59. Emphasis mine.

[12] Erickson, Theology, 358.

[13] Millard J. Erickson, Making Sense of the Trinity: Three Crucial Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2000), 48.

[14] Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 5.28, NPNF2 1:597

[15] Erickson, Making Sense, 48.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 7.28.2, NPNF2 1:807.

[18] Erickson, Theology, 359.

[19] Ibid, 360.

[20] Ibid, 360.

[21] Tertullian, Against Praxeas 2, ANF 3:598.

[22] Ibid. Emphasis mine.

[23] Tertullian, Against Praxeas 10, ANF 3:604

[24] Ibid.

[25] Baptism (Mt 3:13-17; Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21-22; Jn 1:29-34), Christ speaks explicitly to the Father (Jn 17) and of the Spirit (Jn 16:5-11).

[26] Athanasius, Discourse Against the Arians 1.1.1., NPNF2, 4:306.

[27] Athanasius, Discourse Against the Arians 1.2.5, NPNF2, 4:309.

[28] Athanasius, Discourse Against the Arians 1.3.10., NPNF2, 4:312.

[29] Jn 14:28; Mk 10:18 and Lk 18:19; Mk 13:32; Lk 2:52

[30] Erickson, Making Sense, 51.

[31] Graham Keith, “Our Knowledge of God: Insights from the Fourth-Century Trinitarian Controversies,” Reformation and Revival 12:1 (Winter 2003), 86.

[32] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, combined ed. (Peabody, MS: Prince Press, 2007), 161.

[33] Ibid, 159.

[34] Ibid, 164.

[35] Rick Brannan, ed., Historic Creeds and Confessions (Grand Rapids, MI: CCEL, n.d.).

[36] Erickson, Theology, 361.

[37] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 294.

[38] Ibid, 295.

[39] Quoted from Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 1, pt.1, 334 in Horton, Christian Faith, 295.

[40] Fred H. Klooster, “Barth and the Future of Evangelical Theology,” Westminster Theological Journal 47:2 (Fall 1985), 308.

[41] Horton, Christian Faith, 295.

[42] Cornelius Van Til, “Has Karl Barth Become Orthodox?,” Westminster Theological Journal 16:2 (May 1954), 162.

[43] Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations 28:1, NPNF2, 7:288.

[44] Horton, Christian Faith, 299.

[45] Ibid, 296.

[46] Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations 38:8, NPNF2, 7:347.

[47] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, combined ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 89.

[48] John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 697.

[49] Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, vol.1 (Detroit, MIL: DBTS, 2009), 287.

[50] Ibid.

[51] McCune, Systematic, 275.

[52] McCune, Systematic, 289.

[53] Berkhof, Systematic, 88.

[54] Ware, Father, 25.

[55] Homer A. Kent, Jr. “Philippians,” vol. 11, The Expositors Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 122.

[56] Allen P. Ross, “Genesis,” vol. 1, The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1985), 56. See also Kenneth A. Matthews, “Genesis 11:27-50:26,” vol. 1b, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2005), 189.

[57] Leon Morris, “Hebrews,” vol. 12, The Expositors Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 14.

[58] The adjuration implies being “under oath by the living God.” See D.A. Carson, “Matthew,” vol. 8, The Expositors Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 554. See also Stanley Toussaint, Behold the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1980), 307.

[59] Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom (Winona Lake, IN: BMH, 1959), 380.

[60] M. F. Rooker, “Blasphemy,” Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch, ed. T. Desmond Alexander & David W. Baker (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2003), 80-83.

[61] Frame, Doctrine, 694.

[62] Frame, Doctrine, 695.

[63] Matthews, Genesis 1-11:26, 163.

[64] Henry Theissen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949), 135.