Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Why I Believe in the Trinity

I was challenged recently by a Jehovah's Witness to explain the Trinity because I had consistently asserted that Jehovah's Witnesses have a horrible time understanding it. Here is the lion's share of my response edited so as to not be directed at any one person or group.

Sometimes when I say I don’t believe in the Trinity I don’t mean that I don’t believe in the Trinity. The words I use are something like “I personally believe that God is so much further beyond a simple one word definition than we can even understand, but Trinity is as close as many people can get”. For instance, I hold to the majority of what the creeds (Nicene, Athanasian, Apostle’s, etc.) say but I would say that I hold to none of them, because I believe not in models of doctrines, but in methods of study. “Models” cause us to play loose with Biblical interpretation, but proper methods of biblical and historical interpretation reveal the truth.

Now, I will mention of the word catholic a few times but don’t be put off by it. Catholic means universal, where as Roman Catholic is what he pope is.

The first use of the word “Trinity” came from a guy named Tertullian who lived from 155-230, long before the Nicene Council codified the creed in 325. However, the concept existed before him. He would not have needed a word for a concept that didn’t exist. In fact the concept had existed since before the temple fell in 70 AD when most of the apostles were still alive. The Didache (70 AD) mentions the Trinitarian formula for baptism. Ignatius of Antioch (35-107) who was a student of the Apostle John, and was appointed to the see of Antioch by Peter himself, speaks of the Father, Son and Spirit as equal and separate entities in several of his epistles. Justin Martyr (100-165) places the Father in first place, the Son in second place and the Spirit in third place. Theophilus of Antioch who died before 185 used the concept of the trinity before the word was created, in fact the in contemporary translated works, most authors translate the word he uses into the word trinity because it fits so closely to the doctrine of the trinity. Irenaeus who was a disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of John continues down the same road, and espoused the same three part formula. He also said “Whatever is begotten of God is God.” Then came Tertullian who coined the word Trinity. Origin (185-254) said that the Father, Son, and Spirit were all eternal, and spoke of the Trinity. Hippolytus of Rome who died in 235 said “…also the Word is God, being the being of God.” Novatian who died in 258 wrote that Jesus was God and also the Son of God, and spoke of Jesus as being God and man. Pope Dionysus who died in 268 wrote against people who spoke of there being three gods rather than one. He also said it was blasphemy to say that the Son was created. Gregory the Wonderworker (213-270) in his Declaration of Faith espoused exactly what people today do, that there is one God, a Trinity, who is forever existent. And the kicker is that all this was before the Nicene Creed, when many people say the “Trinity” came to be.

Here is how I understand the concept of the Trinity. Understand that I am not arguing from a majority Christian viewpoint, but from what I believe is defensible using the Bible only.

Before we get to it though, I must make a few points. Firstly, how I define God matters not. God can no more be defined by me than you can. God is self defining as a being self aware and with freedom of choice. We can only define someone as much as we can recognize them when we see them, or we can recognize their work or writings when we see those. Secondly, I don’t believe in “Jehovah, Jesus and the Holy Spirit” as the Jehovah’s Witnesses do. The Bible says Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one (feel free to insert Jehovah, I do sometimes to hear how Witnesses might say it). Jehovah (or probably better Yahweh) is God, and there is only one God, and no other gods. It is of the essence of Jehovah (Yahweh) that the Father, the Son and the Spirit Exist. The Father does not equal Jehovah as Witnesses see it.

Best put I think is this: The rope of the Trinity contains three strands. First, there is only one God, second, the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God and third, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not the same but distinct. Don’t bump me for plagiarism here, I admit it, many of these concepts are borrowed from other writers but I have tried to explain it in a way that is original as possible. I am sure those writers borrowed some of their ideas from other writers because the whole thing goes back a long way.

Let’s explore these three strands Biblically. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, which is a corruption of the other two, are all fiercely monotheistic. Isaiah 43:10 says, “Before me, no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am Jehovah (Yahweh or the LORD,) and besides me there is no savior.” I think we can all agree that the Bible claims only one God. Second, there are loads of places where the three are declared to be completely and fully God. Paul says “there is but one God, the Father” (1 Cor. 8:6). The Father, speaking of the Son says, “your throne, O God, is forever and ever” (Hebrews 1:9). And in Acts 5, when Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit, Peter declares “You have not lied to men but to God.” Thirdly, we see a number of clear portrayals of relationships between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father and the Son love one another, and speak to one another (John 17:1-26) and together send the Holy Spirit (John 15:26). Modalism, Oneness or Sebellianism says that the three are one who merely fulfills three purposes at different times, but this makes no sense because of these obvious relationships. And the three separate beings of the godhead in Mormonism is clearly polytheism.

So what was the incarnate Jesus? I believe that people are body-spirit unities. When we die, our body is separated from our spirit, but our spirit is not a thing or does not have place and time like our body does. Just as God is Spirit, as the Bible says his followers worship him in spirit and in truth, he is omnipresent, or is present everywhere, or perhaps nowhere because he is spirit. So humans are an image of God, not because they look like him because he doesn’t have a “look” (indeed, we are close enough to monkeys or other animals) but because we are in spirit, like him, in his image because without a body, he has no physical image. Jesus, in the only way he could take our place as an atonement sacrifice, was to be exactly like us, consisting of a body and a spirit, only his spirit or essence was that of the almighty Yahweh (Jehovah.) That’s why Christians claim that Jesus was the God/man, fully God, yet fully man, being like man having a body and a spirit. Thus when Jesus was resurrected he told his disciples that a spirit did not have flesh and blood as they clearly saw that he had, and when he was taken into heaven, he remained as a body spirit unity, he could not have shed his earthly body after telling his disciples that he had one because that would make him a deceiver. Like saying “see, I told you I had a body” just to get rid of it when nobody was looking.

Some questions I’ve heard:

  1. Are the three separate individuals with separate feelings etc.?

Yes and no. From eternity past, God was a perfect unity and communion of love and fellowship. If Jesus was at some point created, then for an eternity past beyond that Jehovah was alone. When the Word came to earth, he spent a huge amount of time by himself communing with the Father through the Spirit. There are a number of accounts of him getting up early in the morning or going up a mountain to pray. So on earth, he lacked that constant communion. He was therefore at times not in perfect communion and in reality as a human was not able to be infinite in any way, as we are not. He therefore was able not to know the day or the hour of his coming, something you would expect that God would know. But now that he has returned to sit at the right hand of the Father (figuratively since a spirit has no hands) he once again is in constant communion however he retains his human body and will return in the same way that his followers saw him go at the resurrection at the end.

  1. Equal in power?

Not so much when Jesus was on earth. But united in power now, there is no difference in power, infinite is infinite, you can’t have a third of an infinity. There is no reason for God’s power to be divided. Certainly if God is perfectly just then all decisions he would make would be equal, congruent, and synergistic. Rain all falls in the same direction eventually right?

  1. Equal in authority?

See #2. See also Matthew 28:18 which Jesus spoke after his resurrection. Some translations use Power synonymous with Authority.

  1. Always existed, none created?

Yes, as I said before, if at any point in history, whether it be a gazillion years ago or last week, the Word was created, then for an eternity past beyond that, Jehovah was alone. A God that desires to be in communion with his creation just does not seem like he spent an eternity completely alone to me.

  1. Physically separate bodies?

Spirit is not physical. Category mistake. Check the Jehovah’s Witness tract “Should You Believe in the Trinity?” Look for a statue of three bearded men with only four legs between them. Not like that. According to Jesus, spirits do not have flesh and blood, no bodies. If you do not have this tract, get one, everyone should have one. It is available online.

  1. Fleshly or spirit?

I guess you could say some of both. The Father and Holy Spirit were never flesh. However Jesus retains his human body.

  1. Spirit is person or what?

As much as the others are. Though in the case of the Spirit, as with the others, there is a difference in work. Jesus said that when he went he would send the Comforter. I don’t believe a person can be comforted by something that cannot empathize, and impersonal force. And if Jesus had meant that he’d send the Father to comfort, that would create a few problems because the Father sends the Son and the Spirit, not the other way around. Plus, he could have just said that. Many people seem to ignore the Father and the Spirit, however, you must realize that many do not. There are a great number of churches and denominations who put a much greater emphasis on the works of the Holy Spirit. I personally was taught to begin my prayers with “Our Father in Heaven.”

The Roman Catholic religion was not the only one that existed from the time when Constantine was alive. In fact there have always been either sects separate or people who wanted to be separate from the Roman church. The council of Nicaea was an ecumenical council convened to try to come to an agreement on some divergent beliefs. The biggest one in particular was the question of whether Jesus was of the same substance as the Father, or of similar substance. Arius (from which is derived the term Arianism, the belief that Jesus was created) took the opposing view. The end vote was something like 318 to 2. This doesn’t seem like tattered remnants of Christianity to me, but more like a gathering of Bishops (not like today’s Bishops, but what you might call church elders) who really just wanted to rein in the wild ideas of some.

Far from it being formed by Constantine, the council was convened by Constantine upon the recommendation of a bishop named Hosius of Cordoba. And far from being based upon Pagan beliefs and customs, it affirmed the Christian faith that already existed. Arianism was the minority dissenting opinion, it was said to have been causing much strife in the newly legalized Christendom. Additionally, even the condemnations handed down by the Council to the Arians were later all but rescinded by Constantine himself, allowing nearly all of those exiled to return. After Constantine’s death in 337 his son, Constantius II encouraged the Arians to attempt to reverse the Nicene Creed. To that end, he used his power to exile bishops who would not accept the Arian point of view, especially Athanasius from whom the Athanasian Creed takes its name. He even exiled Pope Liberius and installed Antipope Felix II. The whole thing got way messier than it had been before Nicaea. Jerome even remarked that the world “awoke with a groan to find itself Arian.”

When Constantius died in 361, he was replaced with Julian who followed the Roman gods. He allowed exiled bishops to return and cause even more confusion and dissent. Julian was then replaced by Valens who supported the Arian point of view, and renewed the persecution of the Nicenes, exiling bishops and using force. It wasn’t until 378 and Emperor Theodosius I that a Nicene Emperor returned to the throne. It was during his reign that the second Nicene Creed was completed that added the section on the Holy Spirit to the original. Theodosius somehow convinced the dissenting bishops to agree to the Creed despite a great portion of the population still adhering to Arianism. This was the end of the dispute in the Roman Empire at the time.

The debate still raged among the Germanic tribes however. The Germanic ruling class were Arians while the populace were Nicene. Arianism didn’t die out in popular belief in the Germanic tribes until the 8th century.

So, as you can see, according to history there were no tattered remnants of Christianity, no pagan beliefs melded with Christian beliefs, and Christianity as the state religion didn’t come around until much later in 391 under the edict of Theodosius I. It wasn’t Constantine at all, in fact under Julian, the state religion was returned to the old Neo-Platonic Hellenism in the early 360’s. At the council of Nicaea, Christianity was as strong as ever, and was getting stronger, recovering from persecution. The Nicene Creed didn’t introduce anything. It was an attempt by the church leaders at large to unify the people under common belief and expunge something that was causing serious problems among the people. It was an attempt, and unsuccessful attempt at that. Remember, the word Trinity had been coined back around 200 by Tertullian.

Jehovah’s Witnesses say that the Trinity is a mystery to those who invented it, but who invented it? The Roman Catholic Church as we know it today didn’t exist at the time of the creation of the concept of the Trinity. Tertullian didn’t think it was a mystery, nor did the rest of the persecuted Christians from the time of Christ until Constantine and beyond. You see, a persecuted church doesn’t have time to quibble about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. In a persecuted church, you are either a true believer or you are not, there is none of the apathy like in American Christianity today when the church is persecuted.

This is why I believe in the Trinity. History shows it, the Bible shows it, and the Spirit tells of it. I’m not one of those Christians with the Sunday hand-me-down faith. I don’t have the faith of my fathers, I have sought and found my own. Faith in the Living God, in the Gospel once and for all delivered to the Saints, and in Jesus Christ, the Savior and Lord of all.

Peace and Love


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