March 21 2021 - Trinity

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Today we want to take a look at why Christians have been compelled to believe that God is a triune God, a God who is one God in 3 persons. How can anyone say this belief is Biblical, when the word “Trinity” is found nowhere in the Bible? Trust me, none of us would have invented a belief that is so difficult to explain if the Bible hadn’t compelled us to believe it.

 

Not everybody believes it, of course. Neither Judaism, nor Islam, nor the Unitarians, nor the Jehovah’s Witnesses, nor do a large number of people in Utah believe in the Trinity, for various reasons. But Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox believers all do. All 3 of us agree that the triune God is the one true God, and we believe this teaching is a non-negotiable of our faith.

 

Why do we believe such a complicated idea? It all boils down to 2 solid Biblical teachings: 1. There is absolutely only one God. 2. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all fully God.

 

God takes the entire Hebrew Bible to refute the persistent belief of the Hebrews and their neighbors that there can be more than one God. Idolatry was so bad in ancient Israel that belief in one God almost sounds like a brand new idea to them. For God, it was an uphill battle against the people’s persistent slide back into idol worship.

 

So God has to hammer it home constantly: “I am the one and only!” God even rejects the idea that there is only one God for Israel, but there can be other gods for other peoples. It all starts in the first command from Mount Sinai: “You shall have no other gods [literally] before my face.” (Which implies: you shall have no other gods behind my back either. God means: no other gods, period.) 40 years later, Moses reminds the people in Deuteronomy 4:39: “The Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath: there is no other.” Later on, God says in Isaiah 43:10: “Before me was there no God formed, neither shall there be after me.” God repeats it in Isaiah 45:22: “I am God, and there is no other.” And God says it also in Joel 2:27: “I, the Lord, am your God, and there is no other.”

 

By the time of Jesus, God has convinced the Jews that there is only one God, and absolutely no others. But then Jesus comes, and as his disciples watch and listen to Jesus, it becomes hard for them to treat him in any other way but as God. As I have written in my book The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith, “Jesus goes around acting and talking like he is God.” It starts slowly and subtly. Jesus raises eyebrows when he tells the paralyzed man, “Your sins are forgiven you,” and onlookers accuse Jesus of blasphemy; they ask, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus stills the storm, leading his followers to ask, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” But then comes that fateful day in the woods at the source of the Jordan River in Matthew 16, where Peter figures it out: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” and Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven!” God confirms it to Peter, James, and John 6 days later at the Transfiguration, where God’s voice comes from the cloud: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”

 

Until the sergeant utters his famous confession “Truly this man was the Son of God” at the cross in Mark 15:39, “Son of God” almost always appears only in the words of Satan or demons, or God, with very few exceptions. Only when Jesus bluntly answers “I am” to the question at his trial, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” in Mark 14:61-62 can we say for sure what Jesus is claiming for himself in the Synoptic Gospels. In John, however, Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am” (8:58), “I and the Father are one” (10:30), and “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:8).

 

Now, what do we mean by this term “Son of God”? What does the Bible mean? When I was a kid, I used to think it meant sort of like “God Junior.” Even the centurion may not have known exactly what he was trying to say when he called Jesus the “Son of God.” But whenever Jesus gets accused of blasphemy, “Son of God” means that he shares the nature of God in a way that you and I do not, just as we share our own human nature and DNA with our children. Humans can only be figurative children of God, by adoption.

 

Jesus’ resurrection forces his followers to do a total rethink on who he is. Thomas falls at the risen Jesus’ feet and cries, “My Lord and my God!” And from the earliest days of the Church, Jews who’d had it drilled into their brains that there is only one God begin to share with Jesus the worship that belongs to God alone. It’s why Saul of Tarsus tries to put Christians to death. But then he meets the risen Jesus, and immediately begins to preach, “He is the Son of God!” He tries to explain himself in 1 Corinthians 8: “For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we exist.” Paul puts Jesus on virtually equal footing with God.

 

Paul goes one step further in his letter to the Philippians. In chapter 2, Paul says that Jesus was in the form of God, but instead of “thinking equality with God as a thing to be grasped,” he “emptied himself,” by being “born in the likeness of humans.” He lays aside all the rights of being God, and humbles himself even unto a hideous death on a cross. “Therefore God has hyper-exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow…, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Paul is echoing language from Isaiah 45:22-23, where God says, “I am God, and there is no other… To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.” Paul applies all this to Jesus: to him every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is “Lord” (meaning the sacred name of God). Paul equates Jesus with the God who says there is “no other.”

 

Paul gets even more explicit in his letter to the Colossians. He writes in 2:9 that in Christ “all the fullness of deity dwells bodily.” He also writes in 1:15-17 that Christ is “the image of the invisible God,” that “in him all things were created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.” He says that “all things were created through him and for him, and he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Without Christ, says Paul, the universe would collapse. Imagine what it must have taken to convince a monotheistic Jew like Paul to believe such wonderful beliefs about who Jesus was and is!

 

Paul is also the first to tell us that the Holy Spirit is God. He writes in 2 Corinthians 3:17, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” And at the end of 2 Corinthians, Paul closes his letter by giving us the first formula naming all 3 persons of the Trinity: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” We find a similar Trinity formula in the Great Commission at the end of Matthew, where Jesus commands us to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Jesus commands that it is this God in whose name we are to baptize.

 

John 1:1 speaks of Jesus as “the Word.” John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And John goes on in verse 14 of that chapter to say, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” So in the NT we have very clear teachings that there is only one God, and that Father, Son, and Spirit are all truly God.

 

So how do Christians connect the dots on all of this after the NT is finished? Less than 20 years later, Ignatius bishop of Antioch teaches very clearly that Jesus is “God come in the flesh,” and that there is only one God. Several times he refers to “our God, Jesus Christ,” but he also writes, “There is one God, who manifested himself through Jesus Christ his Son, who is his word that came forth from silence,” and that Christ is both “born and unborn.”

 

Likewise, only 150 years after Jesus died and rose, Athenagoras writes first that there is only one God. He appeals to Moses, Isaiah, and all the prophets to prove it. For proof that God is greater than any creature, he quotes: “Heaven is my throne and the earth my footstool. What house will you build for me, or what place for me to rest?”

 

So Athenagoras goes on: “It has been shown sufficiently by me that we are not atheists, because we bring a God who is uncreated, eternal, invisible, cannot suffer, incomprehensible, and limitless, who can be comprehended by mind and reason alone, who is encompassed by light, beauty, spirit, and indescribable power, and who created, adorned, and now rules the universe through the Word that issues from him.”

 

Such a God was a far cry from the beliefs of even the most enlightened Greeks in Athenagoras’ audience. After establishing that there is only one God, and that he is not a man, Athenagoras then throws them a curve and says, “For we think there is also a Son of God. Now let no one think that this talk of God having a Son is ridiculous. For we have not come to our views on either God the Father or his Son as do the poets, who create myths in which they present the gods as no better than men. On the contrary, the Son of God is the Word of the Father in ideal-form and in energizing power; for in his likeness and through him all things came into existence, which means Father and Son are one. Now since the Son is in the Father and the Father is in the Son by a oneness and power of the Spirit, the Son is the mind and word of the Father.” In other words, the Son is the visible expression of who God is and what God thinks.

 

Athenagorus wraps up his argument by asking, “Who then would not be amazed if he heard of men called atheists who bring forward God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and who proclaim both their power in their unity and their diversity in rank?” Further on, he writes again: “We say there is God and his Son, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, united in power yet distinguished in rank as the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, since the Son is mind, reason, and wisdom of the Father, and the Spirit an effluence like light from fire.”

 

At the same time, Irenaeus writes, “The Father is God, and the Son is God, for whatever is begotten of God is God.” And Irenaeus believes that God’s Spirit wells up from within the being of God. Already we have the makings of a Trinity.

 

We still don’t have a clear doctrine that puts the puzzle parts together. Around this time, a teacher named Sabellius tries to put them together by theorizing that the one true God existed in 3 modes, one mode at a time: first in heaven as God the Father, then on earth as the Son, and now within believers as the Holy Spirit, an approach called modalism. Modalism gets it right that there is only one God and that each of the 3 beings is God, but it fails to account for Jesus’ baptism, where we have all 3 beings on the scene together operating at the same time. However, the modalism solution sounded good to 2 bishops of Rome (who didn’t know how else to explain it), until God gave a better solution to 2 other church leaders.

 

Around 200 AD, a Greek church leader named Hippolytus and a Latin defender of the faith named Tertullian both proposed that there is one God made up of 3 persons. Tertullian coined the Latin term trinitas or “Trinity” for this model. God is like H2O: the same substance, in 3 different forms (solid, liquid, and gas), but all 3 exist side-by-side. The only difference is that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all personal rather than chemical. Tertullian writes that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in manifestation; 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 manifestations are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” So Tertullian says, “We believe in only one God,” but “the one only God also has a Son, his Word, who has issued out of himself,” and he says that the Son has sent the Holy Spirit “out of the Father.” Christians throughout the Church found this model to be the most convincing way to explain the Bible’s teaching about God.

 

God guides the Church to make this belief official in 325 AD, after a popular bishop named Arius claims that Jesus was not God, but a created being who was lower than God; he was God-like, but not God. Bishops from all over the empire gathered at Nicea in western Turkey to sort this issue out. They ended up adopting the Nicene Creed as their answer.

 

The Nicene Creed begins, “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” Then it goes into a long definition of who the second person of the Godhead is: “And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds: God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made.” Here the Council emphasized that Jesus was not part of the creation, he is one with the Creator. He came forth directly from God before the universe began, and shares the same nature with God. That’s what it means when it says that Christ was “begotten, not made.”

 

Then comes the clincher: this Christ in whom they believe is homoousios (“the same substance” or “same being”) with the Father, and is the One by whom all things were made. Followers of Arius were willing to say that Christ was homoi-ousios (of “similar” substance) with God, but not of the “same” substance with God. One little letter iota made a huge difference in meaning. This word “same substance” or “same being” shared by God and Christ was not in the Bible, but the Council was led by God to use that word to clarify the teaching of God’s word about Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost. The Nicene Council said the Holy Ghost “comes forth from the Father, and with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified.” God gave the Church language that was not in the Bible that captures in 1 word what the Bible truly teaches.

 

When we say “one God in 3 persons,” the word “person” is not found even in the Nicene Creed. It comes from Tertullian, in his debate with the modalists, who claimed that God was one person who operated in one mode at a time. Tertullian argued that the 3 (Father, Son, and Spirit) are distinct but personal. The Latin word persona means literally “face.” God has 3 “faces,” and yet they are the faces of one God, not 3. That’s where the “substance” idea comes in from the Nicene Creed. All 3 are the same God, not competing gods or even a unified team. Does it sound strange? Again, we would not make this up, if we had a choice. Our desire is to do justice to the entirety of what the Bible says about God: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

 

God’s Church did not invent the triune God 300 years after Christ. All they did was unpack what was already packed into what the NT teaches about God. If God had told the apostles when they were writing the NT all the unanswered questions that would have to be worked out over the next 300 years, they might have said a lot more. They might have coined words like trinitas and homoousios to help describe the nature of God, rather than waiting for someone else to do it later on. But God gave the basic puzzle parts to the apostles. God gave them all they needed to know that God is one God in 3 persons. God then decided to inspire the details to be worked out by others.

 

We worship one triune God. But what else can we say about the nature of God? How big a God is God? How much is God like one of us, and how much is God totally beyond human categories? We’ll talk about that next time on Biblical Words and World!

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