Wednesday, 19 May 2010

The Trinity - true or false?

This blog uses Bible references. If you don’t have a Bible, you can find the Bible text online.

Webster's 1961 new Collegiate Dictionary defines the Trinity as:

"trinity ...1. [cap.] Theol. The union of three persons or hypostases (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost) in one Godhead, so that all the three are one God as to substance, but three persons or hypostases as to individuality. 2. Any synbol of the Trinity in art. 3. Any union of three in one; a triad; as the Hindu trinity, or Trimurti."

Harold Lindshell and Charles Woodbridge in the "Handbook of Christian Faith" make the following claim: "The mind of man cannot fully understand the mystery of the Trinity. He who has tried to understand the mystery fully will lose his mind; but he who would deny the Trinity will lose his soul."

However, it is a remarkable fact that the ideas contained in the Doctrine of the Trinity are not found in the Bible. This is not a new discovery. It has been known for a long time, right back in the 4th century of our era. More recent theologians have said so clearly. For example, the Anglican theologian J. H. Newman, who joined the Church of Rome in 1845, wrote:

". . . the doctrines (that is, concerning Father, Son and Holy Spirit) have never been learned merely from Scripture" (The Arians of the 4th Century, p.50).

Dr. W. R. Matthews, for many years Dean of St. Paul's, London, was more emphatic:

". . . the doctrine of the Trinity . . . formed no part of the original message. St. Paul knew it not, and would have been unable to understand the meaning of the terms used in the theological formula on which the Church ultimately agreed" (God in Christian Thought and Experience, p.180)

Many sincere admirers of Christ may well feel disturbed at this plain assertion that his great Apostle Paul knew nothing of the Doctrine of the Trinity!

How then did it arise?

To answer this question we need to know when it arose. The answer is: not till 300-400 years after the days of Jesus and his apostles. It is a striking fact that the "early Church Fathers" -- the theologians who wrote in the period 100-300 A.D. -- knew nothing of it, and frequently uttered opinions which contradict it. For the majority of them there was no question of Jesus' being "co-equal and co-eternal with the Father". He was subordinate to God his Father, and was regarded as a "created Being". The teachings which now make up the Doctrine of the Trinity were the decisions of a number of general Church Councils. These are the most significant:
325 A.D. First General Council at Nicea, declared that the Son was from the beginning of the same nature as the Father.
381 A.D. Second General Council at Constantinople, declared that the Holy Spirit was to be worshipped with the Father and the Son.
431 A.D. Third General Council at Ephesus, decreed that Jesus had two natures, a human and a divine; also that Mary was the "mother of God", in opposition to those who maintained that she was the "mother of Christ".
451 A.D. Fifth General Council at Chalcedon, decreed that the two natures in Christ constituted only one Person and one will.

The progressive formulation of the Doctrine of the Trinity over a considerable period of time, is clearly shown when the major creeds of the Church are compared:

The Apostles' Creed, certainly an early Creed though its exact date is unknown, expresses the relationship between Christ and God thus:

". . . God the Father Almighty . . . Jesus Christ His only Son . . . conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary . . ." After his resurrection Christ "ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead . . ."

This is in complete agreement with what the Bible says. But later creeds show many additions and a different view.

The Nicene Creed, 325 A.D., declares that Jesus Christ is

"the only begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds . . . God of God, Very God of Very God, being of one substance with the Father . . . The Holy Ghost with the Father and Son together is worshipped and glorified . . ."

The Athanasian Creed, of unknown date but certainly in existence soon after 500 A.D., is even more emphatic:

"We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity . . . there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate . . ." All are declared to be eternal, "yet they are not three eternals, but one eternal". The Creed concludes with the ominous statement: "He that will be saved must think thus of the Trinity."

The new teaching about the Godhead aroused much opposition from those who claimed to be holding the original beliefs. The result was bitter controversy for over a century between the church leaders. The decisions of the Church Councils in the 4th and 5th centuries were the actions of the Church authorities determined to suppress all "rebels". So the official Doctrine of the Trinity was elaborated and proclaimed, and its acceptance declared to be obligatory.

What does the Bible say?

Before Jesus Christ appeared, the writings of the Old Testament had for centuries been revered by the nation of Israel (the Jews) as the revelation of their God who had delivered them from Egypt at the Exodus. What impression had they gained about the nature of God? The answer is clear from the following quotation:

"Having affirmed the existence of God, Judaism really lays down only one basic idea about Him which is a recognised dogma -- the Unity of God. 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.' This is immediately a negation of the polytheism of the ancient world with its numerous deities. It is a repudiation of the idea that there are two gods or two creative sources of existence, one of good and the other of evil. It is also a clear denial of the idea of a trinity -- three gods in One which is the established doctrine of Christianity. For Judaism there can be absolutely no compromise at all in this fundamental concept of the Only One God who is the ultimate creative source of all life and death, the elements of nature and history and the power behind all forces, physical and spiritual" (C. Pearl and R. Brookes, A Guide to Jewish Knowledge, pp.96-97).

To this day the orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity remains a great obstacle for any Jew inquiring into the Christian religion.

In these days of hazy ideas we need to remind ourselves that the Old Testament we possess is the same collection of writings revered in Jesus' day as the word of God. Jesus himself described them as "the law, the psalms and the prophets" and said that in them were prophecies of himself. In Psalm 2 we read:

"Thou art my son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I will give thee the nations for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession" (vv. 7-8).

Certain clear conclusions arise: God has anointed one who is to rule for Him ("my King") over all the nations of the earth. But he is God's Son, because he has been "begotten". The ruler is not God; he is the Son of God; and he began to exist on the day he was "begotten". Like all sons, he is preceded by his Father. The whole of this general teaching is summed up in the first verse of the New Testament:

"The book of the generation (or birth) of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Matthew 1:1).

Now when this "Son" first appeared among men, how does he regard himself? There can be no doubt about the answer: Jesus always speaks of himself as subordinate to the Father, as dependent upon Him for all his teaching and all his works. These are some of his own sayings:

"The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do . . ." (John 5:19).
"My teaching is not mine, but his that sent me" (7:16).
"The Father is greater than I . . ." (14:28).

When he is accused by the Jews of "making himself God", he denies the charge and says, "I am the Son of God" (John 10:34-36). He even declines to allow himself to be called "good". When he is addressed as "good master", he replies:

"Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is God" (Mark 10:18).

In his great prophecy uttered shortly before he was crucified, Jesus speaks of his own coming back to the earth to reign:

"Then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory . . . But of that day or that hour knoweth no one, not even the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father" (Mark 13:26,32).

When he has risen from the tomb, this is his message for the disciples:

"Go unto my brethren and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God" (John 20:19).

There can be no doubt about the view held by Jesus himself: in everything the Father was superior; the Son was dependent upon Him.

The Origin of the Son

How Jesus came to exist is explained in simple terms in the Gospel of Luke. To Mary, a God-fearing virgin in Israel, herself a descendant of David the King, there appeared an angel with a very remarkable message:

"Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee . . . Thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus (Saviour). He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David . . . and of his kingdom there shall be no end" (Luke 1:28-33).

Let us pause for a moment to appreciate the shock of surprise and then exhilaration that these words would provoke in her. She knew quite well the promise made to David over 900 years before. A descendant (son) of David would be the means of restoring the glory of the Kingdom of Israel, and of reconciling Israel to God. This was the long expected Messiah, and she was actually to be his mother. Her child was to reign on David's throne!

But then -- perplexity. Although Mary was betrothed to a God-fearing Israelite named Joseph, they were not yet married, and there could be no question of a child being born until they were. How then, Mary asks the angel, can this promise come to pass? The angel is quite explicit in his reply:

"The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God" (v.35).

To complete the picture, Matthew's Gospel gives us the matter as it appeared to Joseph, her future husband. Before they were married, Mary "was found with child of the Holy Spirit". Joseph would have been fully justified in repudiating his undertaking to marry her. But an angel had a message for him from God:

"Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she shall bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for it is he that shall save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:20-21, R.V.).

From this Joseph would understand that this child was to be the Messiah. The whole episode is concluded by Matthew's statement:

"All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying (he quotes Isaiah's prophecy uttered 700 years before): 'Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son; and they shall call his name Immanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us' " (vv. 22-23).

These divine statements to Mary and Joseph contained the most momentous news. A child with a great destiny was to be born, for he would not only reign on David's throne for ever, but he would also "save his people from their sins". But the child's origin is clearly stressed. Mary is to be the mother, but Joseph is not to be the father. The child will be conceived because "the power of the Highest", "the Holy Spirit", will operate upon Mary to bring the marvel to pass. And so "a virgin shall conceive" and her son shall be called "the Son of God". This is the clear Bible teaching of the Virgin Birth of Christ.

Jesus, Son of Man

There is reluctance sometimes to accept the fact that Jesus, the Son of God, was fully a member of the human race. Some feel that to think of him as sharing our nature with all its weakness is to degrade him, and to throw doubt on his sinlessness.

Here again we must turn to the evidence of the Bible. We have seen already the clear record of his origin and his birth: Son of God, but also son of Mary. The Apostle Paul, writing to the Galatians, puts it thus:

"When the fulness of the time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law" (4:4, R.V.).

"Born under the Law" means that he was a male Israelite, living under the Law of Moses. Paul tells us why: "that he might redeem them which were under the law" (v.5). The Jews lived under a law that condemned them because they could not keep it without sinning. Jesus was born one of them, so that he could fully represent them in his work of redemption.

The Epistle to the Hebrews describes how Jesus had to be made "perfect through sufferings", so that he might be "the author of salvation" for those who are to be sons (and daughters) of God. For this reason "he that sanctifieth (Jesus) and they that are sanctified (the faithful) are all of one"; that is, are of the same nature. This is what he next declares, referring to the sons and daughters this time as "the children":

"Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise partook of the same" (Hebrews 2:10-14).

This is an explicit declaration that the nature of Jesus was exactly like that of his fellows, "flesh and blood". The writer goes on to tell us why this had to be:

"Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that he himself hath suffered, being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted" (vv. 17-18).

In short, Jesus, in order to carry out his great work of sacrifice for sin, had to be of the same nature as those he came to save; and in order to be a merciful high priest, he had to have experience of all their temptations. The point is put equally clearly in chapter 4, verse 15:

"For we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feelings of our infirmities, but one that has been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin."

There is, however, a great reluctance to accept the idea that Jesus literally suffered all the temptations that we do. Some feel that to think of him as literally feeling temptation -- that is, the urge to commit sin -- is to defile him and to make him less than sinless. This, however, is a great mistake. There is a tremendous truth embodied in the living experience and the death of Jesus, and to this we must now turn.

Why was the Son of God born thus?

What was God's purpose in bringing His Son into the world in this way? The following statements will make it clear:

"Thou shalt call his name Jesus (Saviour): for it is he that shall save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21).

"Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).

"God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us . . . For if, when we were enemies (that is, of God), we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life" (Romans 5:8-10).

The clear message emerging from these sayings is that the work of Jesus, under the good hand of God his Father, was to be a sacrifice so that sin could be put away, men and women could be saved and reconciled to God. This is the great work of redemption in Christ. We need redemption; we need "saving", as the Bible puts it. For otherwise our situation is just as the Apostle Paul told those Ephesians theirs had been, when they did not yet know the Gospel:

"At that time you were without Christ . . . having no hope, and without God in the world" (2:12).

What a devastating verdict! Yet that is our case too -- "having no hope", apart from the work of God in Christ. That is why the Gospel of Christ is not a pleasant "optional extra", but vitally necessary if we are to escape the fate of eternal death.

The Vital Work of Christ

So we come to "the problem" (if we may call it that) which needed to be solved. Mankind cannot save itself from the consequences of sin, that is death. Yet God is "not willing that any should perish": in fact He desires "that all men should be saved" (2 Peter 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:4). Yet He cannot overlook sin, for that would be to abdicate His righteous authority in the world. So sin must be recognized, condemned, and conquered in such a way that men and women of earnest, sincere hearts can see the lesson, and acknowledge its truth for themselves. Men and women need a Redeemer who can achieve in himself, and on their behalf, what they in their weakness are unable to do.

So God manifests His only Son, begotten by the power of His Holy Spirit, yet fully a member of the human race. That Son experiences all the temptations of humanity, but firmly rejects them, and chooses to do, not his own will, but the will of the Father. It is vital for us to understand that Jesus made this decision entirely of his own will. He was not forced into it by God, or inevitably predisposed towards it by some preexistent consciousness in heaven. As the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it:

"Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity: therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows" (1:9).

So, representing the human race, Christ conquered sin in that very nature, flesh and blood, where before it had triumphed: he reversed the original failure which led to the Fall, and, being himself sinless, was able to be offered as a sacrifice for sin. His death upon the Cross was the atonement for human sin. So God, having upheld His righteousness in condemning sin, could now in the abundance of His love and grace, extend forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with Himself to all those who will acknowledge His work in Christ.

If Jesus had, as part of the Godhead, already existed in heaven, it is inevitable that he would have been deeply influenced by that knowledge during his life as "Jesus of Nazareth". He would have known that his glorious resurrection and exaltation were certainties. He would not have needed, nor would he have been able, deliberately of his own will to choose to obey God in the face of the greatest natural pressures to please himself. His great conquest of sin, as a representative member of the human race, would not have been possible and the necessary atonement for sin would not have been achieved.

Understanding the truth about the nature and the experience of Jesus "in the days of his flesh" is absolutely essential if we are to understand God's work of redemption in him.

The Holy Spirit

The doctrine of "God the Holy Ghost" came very late into the Trinitarian theology of the 4th and 5th centuries. It was the last, after the Father and the Son, to be declared to be "God". The Apostles' Creed knows nothing of it; and its appearance in the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds has, according to some authorities, the appearance of being "an afterthought".

The Bible's presentation of the Holy Spirit is very different. It is the power and influence by which God achieves His ends. In the beginning "the spirit of God moved over the face of the waters" and as a result the various acts of Creation came to pass. All living things, man and animals, says the Psalmist, depend upon God:

"Thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth" (Psalm 104:29-30).

By His Spirit He sustains them all in life.

The prophets of old spoke their messages from God, not out of the inventions of their own minds, but because they were "holy men of God, moved by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21). Jesus himself performed his great signs and spoke his words of life, because "God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power" (Acts 10:38).

Nowhere do the descriptions of the activities of the Holy Spirit suggest that it is to be regarded as a person.

"Christ the Wisdom of God . . ."
That Son had to be fully a member of the human race, in order to be, not their substitute, but their total representative. Putting aside his natural desires, he chose to do the will of his Father. Thus sin was conquered in its own domain, human nature, and Jesus died as the vital atonement, "the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world". Ever since, believing men and women have found in him forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God.

The marvel is that this great work is still going on. We are far away in space and in time from the days of Jesus and the scenes of his witness. Yet in the great mercy of God we can still know and understand what he and his apostles had to say to those who were willing to listen. But only in the pages of the Bible, and nowhere else. These precious pages demand our earnest and sincere attention in reverence and humility, for where else shall we go? Like Jesus of old, they have "the words of eternal life".

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